Higher fares are not the remedy for our ailing transport system

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When working life resumes tomorrow after the long Christmas and New Year's break, almost anyone who uses public transport will learn that fares have risen by rather more than the rate of inflation. Rail companies defend the discrepancy, citing the need for more investment to improve services. But the objections of passenger groups - that they want to see the improvements first - are not unreasonable. On many routes, fares have risen sharply in recent years, while all too many travellers' experience is of cancellations, more late trains and obsolete rolling stock leaving from decrepit stations.

When working life resumes tomorrow after the long Christmas and New Year's break, almost anyone who uses public transport will learn that fares have risen by rather more than the rate of inflation. Rail companies defend the discrepancy, citing the need for more investment to improve services. But the objections of passenger groups - that they want to see the improvements first - are not unreasonable. On many routes, fares have risen sharply in recent years, while all too many travellers' experience is of cancellations, more late trains and obsolete rolling stock leaving from decrepit stations.

In the rail companies' defence, it should be said that new carriages are being introduced on many services, the trains are cleaner and the food generally better than immediately after deregulation. The increase in passenger numbers is also on their side. If the trains are so substandard and so expensive, why are so many people using them?

Among the reasons are the lack of alternatives and the soaring price of petrol, which may have discouraged some car journeys. Another is the possibility of finding cheaper fares in return for booking far in advance and using off-peak services. One person's bargain, however, is another person's rip-off. Too often it is regular commuters and business travellers who are effectively penalised because they have little choice about routes or time.

The application of the market principle of supply and demand to public transport may deter as many people as it attracts. The complexities of the fare structures alone are sufficient to send people back to their cars and already overcrowded roads.

If the Government is serious about encouraging the use of public transport and reducing road congestion, it has to do more to make public transport attractive. London, with its congestion charge and improving bus services, has shown one way forward; the success of the M6 toll road has shown another. Road pricing via tracking devices would differentiate between light and heavy road users, and could be fairer than the current system. It is good that ministers are considering new options, for the balance is still not right.

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