Stephen Joseph: We are still waiting for cheap public transport

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After the rhetoric, the reality. Labour came to power promising real change in transport, with improved and upgraded buses and trains, and less traffic and road building. But in reality, road traffic and short-distance flying continued to grow, until the recession – and now we see why.

For all the howls from motoring groups and the aviation industry, motoring and flying have actually got cheaper in real terms, while the cost of taking buses and coaches has soared and rail fares are up too. Government policy is actually to make this worse: rail fares are set to rise above inflation for the foreseeable future so that by 2014 passengers foot 75 per cent of the bill for running the railway, as opposed to 50 per cent now. Unregulated fares are being allowed to increase by much more than inflation, as part of franchised agreements, and the failure to provide clear index-linked funding for buses is leading to bus fare increases and service cuts.

This is bad for the economy, society and the environment. As a recent report by Passenger Focus showed, rail fares here are already much higher than in other European countries, which recognise the wider benefits of public transport and fund it accordingly. Constant above-inflation increases in fares will make the UK (and the South-east in particular) less competitive and attractive for business. It is bad for social equity – the poorest will be priced off public transport and will therefore not have access to jobs, training or services. And these trends run wholly against the urgency of carbon reduction; if the Government were serious about this the least polluting transport would be cheaper to use than the most polluting modes.

The Government argues that it can't cut fares: doing so will be too expensive; it has no money, public transport already gets lots, it's up to the operators and so on. It also points out that rail fares may fall next January because they are tied to general prices which are falling. But this will not be a real cut, and other fares are still being increased. The Government has choices. For instance, domestic aviation pays no fuel tax. By ending this exemption, there would be more than enough funds for train fare reductions.

People need good, cheap, green public transport as an alternative to cars and flying. They are not getting this at present.

Stephen Joseph is executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport

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