Sean O'Grady: Self-interest aside, it's right for fares to be increased


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The Independent Online

As someone who uses trains every morning to get to work, I feel a bit stupid asking for my fares to be increased. But it's only right, and for a couple of strong, principled reasons. Usually, by the way, when I wrestle with my conscience I win, but on this occasion I will put self-interest to one side.

First, as the Government and the operating companies argue, the funds are needed to protect investment in the railways. The Government has spared a number of economically valuable projects from the cuts, notably the London Crossrail link (about a century late) and the fast link to Birmingham (which doesn't quite make it to Birmingham, worryingly). The billions they cost has to be found somewhere, as do the subsidies for rural services and other chronic loss-makers. Safety, post-Hatfield, has to have a higher priority, and that means cash, too.

Second, it is only right that those who make most use of the railways, and who tend to be better off, pay for the service. Those wealthy stockbrokers rumbling in from Guildford or Chelmsford can well afford it; there is no good reason why their fares ought to be lower because some hard-pressed family in the Midlands that never uses a train pays taxes towards it. The stockbroker won't use the car because the roads are too congested anyway.

Now, it is true that the cost of living in London has driven many out into the suburbs and beyond, and they will face a painful squeeze. The answer to that is the environmentally and socially desirable aim of allowing people to work from home and to move jobs out of the crowded South-east.

Eventually, the punitive cost of housing and travel will move people and jobs, and the economy will enter a second stage of its much-needed rebalancing. Realistic fares will speed that moment on.