Every January rail fares in the UK get more expensive. It’s cheaper to fly to Berlin and back than to get a train from Sheffield to Essex. But this year Wales has done what the rest of the UK rail has found impossible: instead of hiking prices, it slashed the cost of train tickets by up to ten per cent.
Wales has notoriously poor rail infrastructure – you can’t get from north to south Wales without going through England, and the country is far behind the rest of the UK in electrifying its lines. But even with lowered train fares, Transport for Wales claims that it will be able to invest huge amounts in infrastructure improvements, refurbishing every station, buying new trains and even a metro system.
This metro is a £738 million project that aims to improve transport in South Wales after years of neglect. Large stretches of track will be electrified and trams will be introduced in urban areas. By 2023, 95 per cent of journeys in Wales will be on brand new trains. Around £20m has been dedicated to transport systems in North Wales and £194m has been pledged towards upgrading stations.
This is all part of a 15 year plan to encourage more people to switch from private vehicles to public transport. All of these improvements are designed to get more people using public transport: the argument is that more bums on seats will not only be better for the environment, but will also get a higher revenue overall. These profits will then be reinvested.
“I think it will help people in those areas of Wales that are farthest from the big urban areas,” says Ken Skates, minister for economy and transport for Wales. “It’s going to ensure that people who previously questioned whether they could afford to get the train now make the decision to take the train instead of a car.”
Cutting the cost of public transport has always been a tricky subject outside of Wales, because experts have always argued that it would mostly only benefit wealthy commuters. High earners take three times more rail journeys than those earning the least, and the vast majority of rail users are in managerial and professional occupations. According to a 2019 publication from the Office of Rail and Road, 63 per cent of rail journeys started or ended in London. Cuts to rail fares in England would therefore typically benefit wealthier people rather than those who need it more.
But in Wales, the third lowest-earning region in the UK, the argument is that many people on low incomes simply can’t afford to take trains in the first place – let alone bear the cost of an annual spike in fares.
“Poor and unaffordable public transport is a huge barrier to finding and taking up work,” says Nicole Badstuber, a research associate at the University of Cambridge. “More affordable rail would give many greater access to employment and education.”
Fares are raised according to inflation so that the government and train companies can continue to gain a steady income while continuing to fund improvements – 98p in every £1 of train fares goes back into the service. But in the UK the cost of season tickets is much higher compared to other countries in Europe – passengers can expect to pay five times more than in any other country.
That’s because in the UK train passengers pay for the bulk of the operating costs, where as in other countries the government takes on a higher percentage of the price, so travel is cheaper. In the UK ticket sales accounted for 64 per cent of the rail sector’s income in 2017/18 – up from 55.6 per cent in 2010/11. The UK government could decide to pay a greater share of the cost of rail travel, but the last two Conservative-led governments chose to make passengers pay the cost.
The Welsh model – which would have been impossible if it had relied on funding from central government – shows how things could be drastically different around the country. This current cut is funded by the European Union, which gave £119m in 2018 to fund the South Wales Metro and specific pots of money for different lines. While the Welsh government has assured that its plans are sustainable, once Brexit takes place, the EU will no longer be a source of income for infrastructure improvements and it will need to find another backer. This might trigger a serious re-think of the way rail is run in the UK.
“We expect the UK government to make up every penny of it [funding] once we leave,” says Skates. If Wales can prove that this investment generates cost-savings, more revenue and improves people’s carbon footprint, the government could sit up and take notice. After all, the government has previously said it wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and getting more people to ditch their cars and take up public transport will be vital to achieving this.
“We would all benefit from lower rail travel,” says Badstuber. “Shifting towards more sustainable travel modes, including rail, is important to tackle air pollution and address the climate emergency.”
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