The fight to make our train fares fair

| 12th August 2009
Ending tax breaks for the airline industry could help spur growth in public transport
The Campaign for Better Transport is working hard to bring down train fares and is inviting you to join them in their fight

The UK's train fares are the highest in Europe.

For everyone working to reduce the environmental impact from transport, this makes no sense. Whether your aim is to cut CO2 emissions, reduce the widespread impact of noise, or improve air quality, the solution will involve switching journeys from cars and air to rail and other forms of public transport.

Yet Government, which regulates the cost of most tickets, has as its policy to allow for ticket price increases of 1 per cent above the rate of inflation.

Although there have been moves in the right direction with plans for more electrification of the railway and the publication of the Low Carbon Transport strategy, the Department for Transport continues to ignore the importance of pricing as a way to encourage greener travel choices.

The rise in train fares next January will be based on the announcement this month of July's RPI inflation figure. So even though the RPI rate is likely to be negative, reflecting the drop in most prices, next year's regulated fares like season tickets and long-distance off-peak fares will go up in price.

Rising above

With increasing demand for rail, the policy on the regulation of fares is the fundamental reason why train fares have risen and will continue to rise. Government could decide to regulate fares at below inflation (as it did in until 2004).

But the Government is unwilling to do so, and its priority has been to instead gain "premium payments" from the train operators through the franchise process. It has resisted the arguments by many that pricing needs to be part of its strategy to reduce carbon from transport.

The first argument by Government against tackling the price of fares is that people's incomes have risen faster than fares. But, leaving aside the pressure on wages with the economic downturn, this ignores how people make choices between different modes of travel.

The cost of motoring has fallen by 13 per cent in real terms since 1997, whilst the cost of rail fares has increased by 7 per cent. The relative costs, and the changes in costs, are what matters when people make choices about transport.

The second argument is that advance fares for rail journeys are often much cheaper. This is certainly true, and for those able to book in advance rail can often be cheaper than other modes. But these are only available to those who have some certainty in their plans and this argument does not address the impression that walk-on fares paid for rail create for those who may not use the train on a regular basis.

It's not surprising therefore that people resent the big differences between walk-on fares and advance fares as unfair. Our research shows that the cheapest walk-on fares are on average over four times more expensive than advance fares.

Trains not planes

If we are to get that shift away from cars and planes, then the everyday price of rail fares must be addressed. The Campaign for Better Transport is calling on the Government to reduce the cost of rail to the European average, a change that our research shows would lead to a 17 per cent increase in patronage.

That increase in use will be a challenge for the industry, but with continued investment in electrification, in rolling out the new carriages committed to by Government and by reopening key routes, the railway network can deliver the changes needed to increase patronage without compromising on safety or comfort.

Yes, this does require continued and increased investment by Government in the railway. But we need to recognise that rail, part of our public transport system, is a public service vital to communities across the country.

And investment can be delivered without increasing the burden on the income tax payer. The tax breaks the airline industry gets need to end. Taxing domestic fuel used on aviation at the same rate as motoring fuel tax would raise around £460 million a year - enough to make up for revenue lost through train fare cuts, and to boost capacity where trains are already crowded.

This isn't an agenda about forcing people to choose particular ways of travelling, nor nagging them to do so. It is about giving people real choices in transport and truly reflecting the costs of those choices for the environment in the prices they pay.

We'll be campaigning hard to get the message across to Government in the months ahead and we need the support of people across the country to demonstrate why the price of rail fares matters, and why airlines get an easy ride. You can sign up to our campaign at and see our video of train v plane. Right now, it's not a fair fight - you can help change that.

Richard Hebditch is Campaigns Director at the Campaign for Better Transport


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