The early railways were vehicles for helping cement the different strata of society into a cohesive whole. But today it’s the vocal professional classes who use rail most – and who, in effect, are subsidised by the non train-travelling masses. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR calls for socially inclusive policies to be a fundamental part of the fabric of the railway’s future. What are the railways for? It is a good time to ask this question now, given that the Government’s July announcements mean we have embarked on an unprecedented Railway Renaissance.
The answer is, of course, ‘lots of things’. They provide the best form of travel for two types of journeys: the short trip from the suburbs or outlying towns into a crowded urban centre, and inter-urban journeys of – at present speeds – up to 300 miles. They are also environmentally friendly – though not, perhaps, as much as rail enthusiasts like to think, given the amount of energy they consume – and provide a wonderfully comfortable means of travel for those prepared to eschew the door-to-door directness of the motor car. In addition, to many of us, they are great objects of beauty, somehow merging in with the land in a way that cars and roads never manage.
But is there anything more? When the railways were built in the 19th century, they were a great cohesive network strengthening the very concept of the nation state across the world. They helped create and shape the very form of the societies we live in today. Their value as a unifying force was recognised by the Government which ensured, through the 1844 Railways Act, that the rail companies were obliged to provide cheap travel at a penny per mile. This resulted in a vast increase in Third Class travel, despite the discomforts, and had the effect of opening up the country to huge groups of people who previously would have been confined for all their lives to a small area.
Since the Second World War, the railways have lost their role as the primary form of transport, and their function as a catalyst for gelling society together has been somewhat forgotten. In a fascinating paper written for the Rail Passengers’ Council (the old CRUCC), Professor John Whitelegg of Lancaster University sets out an agenda for ensuring the railways play their part in what has now become known as a ‘socially inclusive’ railway – the spin doctors’ way of saying that more should be done for poor people.
Professor Whitelegg sets out two ways in which the railways work towards the Government’s objective of social inclusion: by meeting the needs of low-income people, the unemployed, women, children, the disabled, ethnic minorities and the elderly; and, secondly, catering better for people in rural areas and for marginal car users who “with a little encouragement can switch to rail” to the benefit of the poorer people in society who bear “the brunt of the negative environmental and health effects of car travel”.
Professor Whitelegg sees low fares, better staffing levels and access arrangements at stations, and more services on Sundays and in the late evenings, as key ways to improve social inclusion. He cites the case of Vienna where a three-day travel pass on all modes of transport, including trams and suburban rail services, costs just £3 which compares with a single return journey in zones 1-2 on the London Tube of £3.60. Low and much wider systems of concessionary fares mean that in Holland and Germany, per capita rail journeys are two or three times those in the UK.
Better staffing at stations and more policing reduces the perception that train travel is dangerous and encourages people with disabilities to use trains. Indeed, access is poor at British stations, as the system is full of steep ramps, stairs, and steps with no handrails, while lifts are rare. Moreover, as mentioned many times in this column, combining cycling with train journeys has not been encouraged or made easier over the years.
Finally, Professor Whitelegg points out that the lack of evening and Sunday services is a deterrent to many people without cars to make use of local amenities.
Arguably, the most important of these suggestions is to ensure that rail travel is cheaper, and one way is through the provision of railcards. I raised this point recently with George Muir, the head of ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies), suggesting there should be a national railcard to encourage off-peak travel, much as there is in the South East with the Network card. In Germany, for example, there is a Wochenendticket which enables rail travel for groups of up to five people over any distance on the network for just £15 (inter-city and high-speed trains are excluded). As Professor Whitelegg puts it, this “encourages social contact, children and grandchildren visiting parents and grandparents, and more social interaction which is documented as improving health and wellbeing”.
In response, I received a two-page letter from Simon Wilson, ATOC’s Railcard Marketing Manager, which offers a fascinating insight into the railway companies’ thinking on such innovation. Mr Wilson said that such a universal card could only be introduced if it could “offer an attractive combination of card price and discount level without diluting our existing revenue flows (my italics)”. He argues that it would have to generate “very high levels of usage from new customers to give us a net increase in revenue”. If discounts were a third, for example, there would have to be 50% more journeys, “which I think would be unlikely to happen”.
Indeed, ATOC has been moving in the other direction by making journeys with a Family Railcard more expensive, and I’m convinced that the Network Card would not be introduced now, and would be scrapped if the ensuing furore could be avoided.
Professor Whitelegg says in his paper that “there is no conflict between a wider, deeper social inclusion rôle and the realities of a competitive privatised industry”. He may be right, but ATOC clearly needs some persuasion. The operators’ response to everything seems to be always to look at their profit margin, rather than the wider considerations of what they are doing. It took Railtrack five years before it realised that managing the rail network was not the same as maximising profits from manufacturing Tupperware or golf balls.
There is a lack of imagination and co-ordination here. If the Government really wants to boost rail travel, then a way around this problem should be found. Sure, the rail companies would lose some revenue, but making rail travel more attractive to the less well-off – and encouraging better-off users as well, who then leave their cars at home – is a stated Government target. A little bit of arm-wrenching from Mr Prescott seems in order here. A national unrestricted off-peak railcard would do more to boost rail travel than possibly any other single measure.
There is a wider issue at stake. At present, rail travel is, broadly, for the better-off, which is why the rail companies get such a bad press since their customers are used to complaining, unlike bus passengers. Rail passengers are, by and large, the middle classes commuting into London or travelling around the country on business. Professional people are three or four times more likely to use a train than those in lower social classes.
As a result, rail subsidies are a regressive form of taxation, taking money off the broad masses so that Mr Iam Allwright can get to his jolly important job in the City. The continuation of these subsidies means that socially inclusive policies are not an optional add-on for the rail companies – and the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator – but should be part of the very fabric of the service which is being offered. Therefore, to answer the rhetorical question at the beginning, social inclusion is what the railways should also be for.
I’m not convinced the SRA understands this or has taken these issues on board yet. Looking at the Chiltern and Midland Mainline franchise deals, there are plenty of goodies in terms of investment but the bulk of these relate to the big-picture issues – new stations, extra trains, faster services. However, there is precious little about the ‘softer’ issues such as ensuring that stations are accessible, that operators are encouraged to provide cheap fares, and that staffing levels are improved to reduce crime and attract people on to the railways. In the more politically correct 1980s, many local authorities used to have a section setting out the equal opportunities implications of every item on the council agenda. Perhaps the SRA should ensure it has a ‘social inclusivity’ test on every decision it makes.
Own goals again
This failure of the train operators to consider the wider implications of what they do was highlighted again earlier this month when their desire to restrict the sale of advance tickets at some stations leaked out. ATOC has been reviewing its position on ticket retailing and has intimated it would like to reduce the types of ticket sold at some stations where there is little demand for advance purchases.
Challenged about this in the media, ATOC responded by saying that this would benefit travellers “by making it clear to passengers what tickets they can buy at which stations and by giving them reassurance about the quality of service they can expect”. There is only one word for that: ‘B*****ks!”
The real reason was given in the next sentence: “It will also help the train companies determine the right type of investment, both in training and equipment, according to the needs and wants of their passengers at each station.” In other words, operators could get away with employing ticket clerks who were less welltrained and with spending less money on equipment.
It all smacks of the cheese-paring, bottom-line economics of the old railway. Stations were largely destaffed by BR on the faulty basis that since costs were reduced, the demand for subsidy would go down, entirely forgetting that revenue was lost as a result through fare evasion, vandalism and people’s fear of travelling. It really is time for ATOC to move away from this backward view of the railway and develop its ideas on the basis that rail is a growth industry rather than a dying one.
In any case, did ATOC really think it would get these ideas past hard-nosed Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, when his predecessor suffered such flak during the rail privatisation process for considering reducing the number of stations selling a full range of tickets to 400 out of 2,500?