If there is one piece of news guaranteed to draw ire from embattled commuters, it is the annual hiking of season rail ticket fares. As anyone forced to endure the nightmarish vagaries of public transport can attest, whatever the cost of a seat (if you’re lucky enough to get a seat), commuting on trains that are often overcrowded and late rarely feels like value for money. With price hikes of 3.6% now expected for many – the biggest annual increase in five years, at a time when average wages aren’t going up – there are fresh calls for a freezing of rail fares and nationalisation.
Reasonable as this rage may feel, it masks a more important story about our transport system: it is an important driver of inequality. The government spends over £5bn on public transport subsidies, which is around double the amount spent on NHS A&E services across the country. But for decades, it’s been the most affluent who benefit the most. The richest 10% of households each receive on average nearly double the subsidy of the poorest 10% of households.
The root cause of this imbalance is the huge subsidy provided for rail travel in London and the south-east. As the thinktank IPPR North has shown, more than half of the UK’s total spending on transport networks is invested in London, and this gulf in investment is expected to get worse. An estimated £1,943 is being spent per person in London on current or planned projects, compared with just £427 in the north. A household in London benefits from almost four times as much rail subsidy as a household in Wales.
Bus subsidies are much more evenly distributed across households of different incomes because people on a lower income are more likely to use buses. Those who clean London’s offices can often be seen before daylight, starting their day’s work after a long bus ride into the centre a shorter journey made by rail is beyond their means. But the level of subsidy for Britain’s bus network is much lower than for rail.
Uneven transport subsidies may seem trivial, but they have profound consequences. They mean the poorest are often effectively locked out of access to good jobs, schools, health services and social or cultural activities.
What should we do about it? For many, the answer is simple: renationalisation. The arguments in support of this are appealing to those of us fed up and appalled by the high level of shareholder dividends and bloated executive pay often seen in train companies.
But when it comes to subsidies, the government should be prioritising transport infrastructure in poorer areas. It could invest more in the buses and trams used by people on lower incomes and less in the rail transport used by better-off people. Or it could even give the subsidy directly to people on low incomes for use on transport, for example by expanding the free bus travel that already applies to elderly people and the disabled to those who are unemployed or on very low incomes.
It is an inherent failure of public policy that these sorts of solutions haven’t been sufficiently considered. Our transport system is vital to just about all of us. It’s how we get to work, send our kids to school, how we shop and generally move around. It quite literally binds society together.
But despite this, it is still failing many of our poorest. We remain too likely to see investment that disproportionately benefits the most affluent households as a net positive, because there is no assessment of its impact on inequality. This is despite the large and growing evidence base of the harmful social and economic effects of inequality.
The Equality Trust is calling on the government to take into account the impacts of all of its decisions – from transport, to education to healthcare – on economic inequality. Until that happens, we’re on the road to greater inequality, and an even more fractured and divided nation.