Narrow view of the railways bodes ill

I have been extremely busy with Metronet collapse and other writing, so have failed to blog for a few days but a quote in today’s Guardian forces me into the ether. In a piece about rising fares, a Department for Transport spokesbeing defends the government’s policy of encouraging above inflation rises by saying: ‘The reality is that 6 per cent of the population travels on railways. Why should peopole who don’t use the railways regularly fund people who do?’
This is a remarkably ignorant, narrowminded and mistaken view of the transport situation in this country. For a start, far more than 6 per cent of people use the railways. The figure being referred to is that 6 per cent of journeys are made by the railways, but of course the percentage who use the railways in any one year is far greater – I am away from my office at the moment where I could check it but I think the figure is 60 per cent or thereabouts.
Secondly, there are many good reasons why people who don’t use the railways should support them financially, just as people who don’t have schools should help pay for them – because the people they educate will contribute to the overall wellbeing of society – or indeed, people who never go into hospital should contribute towards the NHS. Even in the most narrow terms, the railways benefit car drivers by keeping many people off the roads and therefore speeding up their journeys. On a wider basis, they are a key tool of economic regeneration.
Put simply, the benefits are an economic phenomenon known as ‘externalities’. Essentially the railways cannot capture all their benefits through the fare box and therefore require subsidy. Otherwise there would be no justification for any subsidy at all, which is presumably not what this spokesbeing is suggesting.
The whole theme of my forthcoming book, Fire & Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain is that the railways have never been sufficiently recognised in this country given the wide range of benefits they bring about for everyone in society. For the Department to allow its economically-illiterate spokesbeing to make this statement on the day before the long-awaited huge railway announcements which will include the five year programme for Network Rail and a 30 year strategy for the industry are to be made bodes ill for their content.

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