Like many people I did my first train journey of the New Year yesterday and was met with a fare rise. The little bit of my commute I do by bike (from Edinburgh Waverley to Edinburgh Park) had gone up a whopping 5% from £2.20 to £2.30. I'm a lucky one. My poor mother's unregulated off-peak older persons fare from Shipley to Leeds has gone up a whopping 100% from £1 to £2.
One thing that's widely acknowledge about train travel in the UK is it's predominantly a mode of transport for the more affluent, the middle classes. The working classes use the bus. From what I vaguely know of the debate, the last Labour government used this social justice argument to lead to the fare increases we're now seeing and a reduction in government subsidy. This got me thinking - how have bus fares compared to train fares? Luckily for me a quick firtle on the interwebs revealed that the Department for Transport has been compiling an index of bus fares since 1995, hopefully available here. The index has gone from 100 in 1995 to 193 in 2010 - an almost doubling of bus fares over fifteen years.
I went in search of the Rail Fares Price Inde. The UK National Statistics page that comes up in Google for this search, of course, doesn't include the stats themselves.I did a bit more searching and found that the Guardian, that great opener of data, had popped the Office of the Rail Regulator figures into a Google spreadsheet. Ahh, but that index had been re-indexed in 2009, so the data is not comparable. But, the spreadsheet includes a link to the original data and the ORR archive which includes a report (pdf) which reports on the index from 1997 to 2008. Page 47 of this report shows this index stood at 104.6 in 1997, which suggests that like the bus index it was reindexed in 1995. This means that the increase in rail fares over the period 1995 to the year of re-indexing (2009) was 51.2% (the index rose from 100 to 151.2). The Bus Fares index rose to 171.7 over the same period.
Well, this does suggest that in the period 1997-2008 rail users did not have anything to moan about and were being subsidised. This makes sense, since apart from in London and in very special circumstances, it is basically against the law for local authorities to subsidise anything but concessionary fares. But of course, we are in no way comparing like with like. Bus companies get a rebate on their diesel from the Treasury. They also gain a massive indirect subsidy from the upkeep of roads by local authorities and trunk road authorities. Railway companies need to pay Network Rail to keep the tracks in good working order.
So, what does all this mean? Well, as far as I'm concerned nothing. What is actually important is that we massively increase spending on public transport. We need to achieve massive modal shift in transport use, and if subsidising the middle classes to use trains and light rail as they don't want to be with the hoi-polloi on buses, achieves this, then I reckon we should get on with it.