Azara Blog: Congestion charging on the railways

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Date published: 2005/06/21

The BBC says:

Rail passengers could face congestion charge-style price hikes at rush hour to combat rising passenger numbers.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) proposed "rail peak pricing" to combat a forecast rise in travellers of at least 28% in 10 years.

Atoc said the government's road charging plan could prompt such a move by forcing more people on to trains.

But the Rail Passengers Council said travelling at off-peak times should be made "more attractive".

An Atoc future strategy document published on Monday said: "Any rail service which is a practicable alternative for people using the car on a high-charge road journey will need its own peak pricing system."

Atoc Director General George Muir told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "In the next 10 years the objective will be to run as many trains as we sensibly can, and as long trains as we can, to carry the maximum capacity.

"But there will come a point, and we are not far from that point, where we have reached capacity, and at that particular time if road use pricing then comes in it clearly has a knock-on effect on the pricing of other modes."

The strategy document - entitled Looking Forward: Contribution to Railway Strategy - also said scrapping under-used trains and stations could help operators handle growth.

Franchise requirements forcing operators to continue running these should be ditched, it said.

It also proposed lengthening trains on selected routes, improving track lay-outs and changing timetables to allow more trains to run.

The report said that overall the network should be able to handle predicted growth through innovation and small investments.

But Anthony Smith, director of the Rail Passengers Council, told Radio Five Live: "We are very, very worried that unless more space is made on the train network we're going to be looking at pricing people off, which would be a complete failure."

He added: " We've got serious climate change; we've got serious problems with vehicle emissions - we've got to get more people using public transport. It's not a solution to price them off.

"What we've said for a long time is make travelling off-peak and at less busy times more attractive - don't price people off at peak times."

Well the Rail Passengers Council is being silly on several fronts. Firstly, making rail travel "at less busy times more attractive" is pretty much the same as "pric[ing] people off at peak times", since by "more attractive" he means cheaper, so it is entirely price driven. Secondly, what is it about rail users that they think they are saving the world (and stopping climate change) by commuting (or whatever) by train? Their journey is hugely subsidised so they are not even paying for the energy they are consuming, never mind the consequent environmental damage. Commuting from Bristol or Cambridge to London every day is not an environmentally friendly life style no matter how you do the journey. Thirdly, are train passengers willing to pay for the extra capacity on the network that they want? Of course not, they believe it should be non-train passengers (i.e. the general taxpayer) that pays. One of the reason rail advocates constantly get away with this nonsense is that most of the media (including the BBC) is run by people who are rail (and/or underground) passengers, so of course they are happy to promulgate the view that the rest of the world should pay for their journey.

In any case this story is largely nonsense, since the price of train tickets is already higher at peak times, exactly for economic reasons. So the only real question here is what that level should be. Needless to say economists are happy to congestion charge everything (it keeps them fully employed determining the price), and if it's good enough for cars, it's good enough for trains. While we're at it, we should congestion charge pedestrians and cyclists. After all, by being in the way on roads (e.g. stopping traffic at pedestrian crossings) they are causing congestion. Fair is fair.

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