Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

16th October 2010

Just for a change, a rant about transport

A familiar refrain from certain quarters during Labour’s time in office was that the government had declared “war on the motorist”. The phrase originated from right-leaning tabloid newspapers and was picked up enthusiastically by the Tory party as an easy vote-winner with its middle class base.

With Labour gone and Tory Philip Hammond (a man who thinks that trains should stop and wait for cars at level crossings) firmly entrenched in the Department for Transport, the war on the motorist is well and truly over. The final front has been closed, apparently, with the removal of the M4 bus lane.

On its own this would not make much difference: the war on the motorist was about as successful as the war on drugs, the war on obesity and the war on Iraq. However at the same time as ending the war on the motorist, the Government has declared a new war: on public transport users.

The spending review is coming up and we are being told that there are difficult decisions ahead (I’m fairly sure that George Osborne is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect). Public transport is firmly in the firing line. There is already much speculation that Bus Service Operators Grant could be axed. The loss of this subsidy would almost certaintly lead to big fare increases across the board, and the loss of marginal services (particularly those in rural areas, and evening and Sunday routes).

Now we are being told that the government want to slash the subsidy paid to rail companies. They will do this by removing or relaxing the caps on fare levels, leading to expected ticket price rises of up to 40% by 2015.

Sky-high rail fares are already creeping in: Virgin will happily charge you £245 for an Anytime Return from Liverpool to London. The Off Peak Return fare is a more reasonable £66.20 but could be nearer to £100 within a few years if this plan is carried out in full. Prices like that will simply drive away a lot of custom and force people off the railways.

It probably won’t surprise you when I say that I disapprove of this sort of thing. My political views are difficult to pigeon hole, but when it comes to public transport issues I’m slightly to the left of Lenin. I believe that public transport is a public service and should be run for the benefit of users, rather than being left to the “market” and the whims of shareholders. And if it needs a big fat wodge of taxpayer money to provide that, so be it.

This mainly stems from my childhood memories of that torrid time in the 80s when the Thatcher government deregulated the local bus market. I could only have been four or five years old at the time, but I clearly remember that my local bus route was lost after Merseybus diverted it down a different road to serve a more profitable route. This wasn’t good for the hundreds of local residents who were left with either a long walk to the next nearest bus stop, or the use of an infrequent round-the-houses service subsidised by Merseytravel. However, it was certainly good for the bus company’s balance sheet. The market fails again.

The point (and I do have one) is that public transport is already expensive. Increasing fares will simply drive people away from buses and trains and back into their cars, increasing traffic congestion (and there’s no “war on the motorist”, don’t forget). That would be a huge step backwards. And of course, the poor people who can’t afford cars … won’t be able to afford public transport either. They can just sit at home and watch Jeremy Kyle.

What’s especially annoying is that — as is usual when the subject of expensive railways is discussed — there is no mention of reforming the absolutely crazy fragmentation introduced at privatisation which has reduced efficiency and driven up costs.

Oh well… trains and buses will soon be too expensive to use, and I still can’t afford to run a car. I’m glad I learned to ride a bike now.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.