Rail fare increases: time for systematic change

“In the years since the privatisation of the railways, the government has allowed for profits to become the guiding principle of policy.” Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack takes the government to task over the rising cost of rail travel in a time of climate chaos, when an accessible and affordable public transport system is a necessity if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions.

Black and white image of people on a train
Black and white image of people on a train
Amelia Womack

In a year in which rail users have experienced timetable fiascos and travel misery due to increasingly extreme weather, the fare increase announced yesterday is the latest insult to commuters.

The rise in fares is just the latest example of how the Department for Transport and the government as a whole, in the years since the privatisation of the railways, have allowed for profits to become the guiding principle of policy, willingly renouncing the public service ethos and the pivotal role they should play in today’s world.

Figures from the Department for Transport obtained by Caroline Lucas reveal that between 2010 and 2017, the cost of bus and coach travel rose by 18 per cent and the cost of rail fares went up by four per cent.

In contrast, the cost of driving fell by eight per cent while the cost of air travel – by far the most polluting form of transport – fell by a staggering 22 per cent for domestic air travel and 24 per cent for international travel.

Figures showing how the cost of green transport has increased 2010-2017

This shows how we are completely ignoring the reality of the climate chaos that is upending our way of life. Making rail fares and public transport cheaper is crucial in bringing about a real and immediate change for the environment. Combined with support for active transport, walking and cycling, this would would transform the way in which we move around the country, making transport more social and less revolved around the private ownership of vehicles, whether that’s fuel-powered or electric. 

The fact that green transport skyrocketed in the last decade illustrates the emptiness behind the rhetoric of the net zero emissions by 2050 target. The government is not leading the UK into a systemic change in the way we travel, being content instead with long-term and non-binding objectives. 

Making public transport cheap and affordable is not just the only path for tackling climate chaos, it is also a human right. Public transport is the nervous system of a country, and making it outrageously expensive ends up creating a second class of citizens for whom travelling across their own country becomes a luxury. Transport poverty is increasingly a reality across the country, with people unable to travel to their place of work because of prohibitive fares. 

As highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, “abandoning people to the private market in relation to services that affect every dimension of their basic well-being, without guaranteeing their access to minimum standards, is incompatible with human rights requirements”.

So where do we go from here? 

Public transport, cycling and walking should be the pivotal elements of a new socially integrated transport system, one which meets the demands of climate change head on.

Time and time again, privatisation has been shown to be the wrong approach for a rail service that should be returned to public hands. Renationalisation would allow for the railways to become the flagship service of a country that is serious about climate chaos, enabling us to implement a systematic change in the way we move around the country.