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Reclaim the Tracks!

Justin Schlosberg | 04.03.2008 12:15 | Bio-technology | Climate Chaos | Ecology | World

In the face of price increases of 3 times the rate of inflation for average rail journeys in the UK, arguments in support of greater public investment and even re-nationalisation are gaining strength. But as with so much of environmental and transport policy, the opposite is happening in practice.

Ever since privatisation under Margaret Thatcher, the UK rail industry has been plagued by fatal accidents, incessant delays and widespread customer confusion as to which operators run on which routes. Today, much of these problems persist but they are compounded by bewildering annual price increases and a simultaneous cutback in public investment. In a climate altering age when electrified rail offers the best hope for curbing transport CO2 emissions, an old lament seems more pertinent than ever: what’s wrong with British rail?

Clothed behind the greenwash espoused by government and corporate PR machines, there is a glaring contradiction between carbon targets and reality. That aviation growth poses the greatest threat to these targets is almost as beyond doubt as the reality of climate change itself. Yet the UK government continues to sponsor widespread airport expansion both rhetorically and financially: unlike all other forms of transport, airlines remain exempt from fuel tax and there is no VAT on the purchase of aircraft or airline taxes. This amounts to an annual subsidy of £4 billion. By contrast, last year the government proudly announced a £1.5 billion reduction in annual rail subsidies, resulting in dramatic price hikes for consumers.

Its justification for this lies in the growth in passenger demand for rail travel. But between 1980 and 2006, rail travel in the UK increased at a lower rate than that of both car and domestic air travel. Indeed much of the increase in demand for rail travel is derived not from consumer choice. Changes in urban trends and the rapid growth in house prices have forced many people to relocate further away from town centres, increasing their dependency on rail commutes. Seen from this light, cutbacks in rail subsidies amount to an income squeeze on those who can least afford it, let alone the environmental consequences.

On the cost side the picture is equally upside down. The last 6 years have seen a fall in the cost of air travel in absolute terms, and contrary to public perception, motoring costs have fallen in real terms. At the same time, the cost of UK rail travel has consistently risen above the rate of inflation. What none of these trends reflect are the stated intensions of the Department for Transport’s green agenda – to promote public transport of all types and encourage people out of their cars.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not the train operators who are losing out. Since June 2007, the two biggest Rail groups in the UK – Stagecoach and First Group – announced profit jumps of 38% and 36% respectively. Network rail, the not-for-profit company that owns the rail tracks, has been reporting large profits since 2006, marked for reinvestment in maintenance and development. But 60% of the UK’s rail tracks are still diesel-operated rather than electrified making British rail the most polluting in Western Europe. Add to this the persistent problems with signalling systems and capacity and its no wonder consumers are left wondering where their money is actually being spent.

It’s safe to say that the consumer and the planet are joint losers in the complex interplay between industry lobbyists and policy directors. The resultant price hikes are an economic slap in the face to people who depend on rail travel for their jobs. It’s a fact often unnoticed by those who perish the thought of airline taxes rendering flights prohibitive to lower income groups. Even if air taxes remain as they are, much could be done by the government and travel industry alike to encourage people to switch away from the most polluting mode of transport. In 2007, the Institute of Public Policy Research recommended that the travel industry publish ‘green health’ warnings on all air travel related advertising. But without legal sanction, it seems unlikely that such a policy could be effective when air travel accounts for the vast majority of tourism industry revenues.


Justin Schlosberg
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