The recurrent and deeply unpopular problem of rail fare price increases can only realistically be addressed through increased investment in infrastructure upgrades, argues MP Graham Evans
In recent years, rail fare price increases have become commonplace. This year was no different. And there is never a shortage of politicians lining up to express their horror and blame the government of the day. Whilst politicians are always quick to allocate blame, they are typically slow to suggest any solutions. Of course, it is far easier to snipe from the sidelines about fare increases than it is to come up with ways of preventing further fare increases in the future.
Anyone with even the loosest grasp of economics can tell you that prices are determined by supply and demand. If demand outstrips supply, prices will increase and there is no doubt that demand for rail is on the increase. Take the London-Manchester line. Network Rail anticipates that we will experience a 61 per cent increase by 2024. The problem is that we are already pretty much at maximum capacity on the West Coast Main Line, so there is little room to increase supply to match demand.
This means that the rail fare increases of recent years will be nothing in comparison to the potentially astronomical increases in the years to come if we do not find another way to increase our rail capacity.
Rail package 2
The much talked about Rail Package 2 plan to increase capacity on existing lines will, quite simply, not be enough. Careful analysis of Rail Package 2 has been carried out and the findings make it very clear that incremental improvements in the existing network are unlikely to be able to keep up with the rapidly growing passenger demand we are witnessing. It also provides bad value for money and will not prevent the huge rail fare price increases that we face in future.
There is only one viable solution to the capacity challenge: HS2. The government’s plans for a high speed rail link between London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester will shift our railway supply curve and help ensure we keep up with ever-growing demand to stop rail prices rocketing. Whenever anyone tries to make a case against HS2, it should be remembered that they are also making the case for inflation busting fare increases for years to come.
The new line will also free up extra capacity on existing lines, meaning that towns and cities not directly served by HS2 will also enjoy improved commuter services. So the benefits go well beyond the line itself.
But the capacity problem isn’t just one of ticket prices, it is also an issue of quality of life. Some of our trains are already so busy that they are crammed full, leading to more stressful and miserable commutes, which in turn leads to a less productive workforce when they finally get to work. One of my constituents recently told me they were on a train to London that was so packed, they had to sit on the floor next to the toilet for the entire journey. The next time an anti-HS2 campaigner pipes up, perhaps they should be asked whether they would be happy if they had to sit like that for over an hour and a half on regular occasions.
The high speed part of high speed rail will also lead to quality of life improvements. To put it as simply as I can, high speed rail will give businesses and families the gift of more time. Birmingham to London commuters will have their journey reduced by 35 minutes. Manchester to London commuters by 55 minutes. Leeds to London commuters will save a whole hour. People travelling between London and Glasgow or Edinburgh would also save a whole hour. Forgetting London, commuters between Birmingham and Manchester would find their journey 41 minutes faster with HS2.
These are not trivial savings. It will make a real difference to so many businesses and families. The benefits of getting home an hour earlier to be able read a bedtime story to your children are impossible to quantify.
And are businesses likely to invest in a country that has such a jammed up railway network, which is slow, costly and uncomfortable to travel on? Our international competitors all either have high speed lines already or are investing in new ones right now. In the era of globalisation, failing to act now will leave the next generation with an economy that is unable to compete and unable to attract inward investment.
HS2 will also free up capacity for rail freight. This is crucial as the coalition government is trying to rebalance our economy away from being dominated by the City of London to having more northern-based manufacturing. A booming manufacturing industry will need more freight capacity.
So HS2 will help deliver economic growth. And it will be low carbon economic growth as well, dramatically reducing the demand for domestic flights, shifting six million journeys from aviation to rail.
As a member of parliament for a northern constituency, it is also important that high speed rail will also help encourage greater economic growth in the north. Local businesses and residents in my constituency are very excited about the potential of high speed rail, and rightly so. A recent economists report carried out for the Core Cities Group found that HS2 could eventually help create as many as one million new jobs. To my mind, this demonstrates that HS2 is the most important major infrastructure project of the twenty first century, that will help address the north-south divide.
Sadly, there is more than a whiff of anti-northern sentiment in the campaign against high speed rail. At a recent Yes to High Speed Rail campaign rally in London, a handful of bitter opponents turned up to heckle. One opponent was overheard complaining: “Why are we wasting so much money on a train to the north? Surely it would be better to spend the money knocking down their filthy slums.” Such ignorant statements are beyond parody.
Given that the average transport spend per head in London is £802 compared to £333 in the north west, I think we are entitled to ask why those complaining about the cost of HS2 are mysteriously silent when it comes to the very similar cost of Crossrail.
Ultimately, high speed rail is absolutely essential for the future of our economy in both the north and the south. If we listen to a handful of bitter opponents, we will saddle our children and grandchildren with a costly railway network that is not fit for purpose. If we are brave enough to take the right decision for the long term, we will be reaping the benefits for generations to come.
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