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Rail Against The System: How Our Transport System Entrenches Inequality

Today new research released by the TUC has shown that rail fares have risen twice as fast as wages since 2010. For those who rely on trains to get to work each day, they will be feeling this hit as they lose more of their wages on their daily commute. This is made worse of course by the often terrible service provided by rail franchises, overseeing frequently late or cancelled trains.

However, when you consider how political parties prioritise rail over other forms of transport, it’s clear there are other, even greater problems facing our creaking transport system.

As we showed in our research last summer, train users are overwhelmingly in high income households concentrated in the south of the country. With transport subsidies disproportionately funnelled towards rail services, they also receive vastly more in transport subsidies than low income users of other forms of transport. 

The Government has frozen regulated rail fares year after year and in their last election manifesto promised to continue doing so for the rest of this parliament. Both candidates for the Labour Leadership also want to protect rail users by nationalising train franchises. Unfortunately, these policies alone will do very little for the large numbers of low income households using other forms of transport and locks in the existing subsidy to high income households.

To their credit both the Government and Jeremy Corbyn have also announced reforms to improve bus services. The Government is giving areas with new metro mayor’s new franchising powers to give local areas more control over their local bus services. Today, Jeremy Corbyn suggested that they should go further and give local areas the ability to set up municipal bus companies as well (supporting We Own It’s call for greater public ownership of bus services). Whilst these reforms are to be welcomed, they both simply seek to make the small amounts that get spent on bus services go slightly further, rather than address the gross transport inequality that already exists.

Transport policy needs to be much more radical and focus on combatting inequality rather than entrenching it. Rather than looking at each method of transport individually and tweaking the existing systems their needs to be a large shift toward supporting low income transport users to help them gain better access to work, public services and social and cultural activities. There are many ways that this can be done, through giving direct support to low income users through railcards or vouchers, through shifting subsidy to transport used by low income users (like buses) or by investing in building transport infrastructure in poorer areas.

The media and political obsession with high train fares experienced by overwhelmingly better off commuters misses the bigger picture of transport inequality experienced by most people. The experience of not being able to afford highly priced rail and a lack of provision of fast, regular alternative forms of transport is far more common, and should be a much higher priority. It is reasonable to expect the Government will tackle the often quite appalling service provided by rail franchises, but it must prioritise the need to tackle this transport inequality first and foremost.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor