John Ruddy, Scottish Labour’s MSP candidate for Angus North and Mearns, has a simple suggestion to boost rail travel, reduce public subsidy and help cut carbon emissions.
As a regular rail user, I know how much it costs to use an environmentally friendly way of commuting to work. Rail fares have risen by an average of 25% since 2010, with some rising by much more. While peak time trains are crowded, off-peak services have capacity to spare. The annual subsidy to Scotrail is over £261 million – or 8.6p per passenger kilometre.
Over a decade ago, Railfuture, the organisation that campaigns for improved rail transport, commissioned research into a National Railcard that anyone could buy – similar to those for young people or senior citizens. That research found that at almost any combination of cost and discount, additional passenger journeys would be created and, as a result, profits would increase for the operator and subsidies would be reduced for the taxpayer. In fact, the biggest positive impact on reducing subsidy was found with the biggest discount (50%) – bigger than the current 33% offer for existing cards.
We should implement such a card now, covering all rail travel in Scotland. Geographical cards like this exist elsewhere in the UK, such as the hugely successful Network Railcard covering London and the South East. Introduced in 1986, this was intended to fill empty off-peak trains primarily used by commuters into London. Holders of annual season tickets in London and the South East are given free Network Railcards – called ‘Gold Cards’ – which have fewer restrictions, and include the ability to purchase further railcards for family members for £1, and the option to upgrade your off-peak ticket to first class for a small flat fee.
From the Railfuture study, we know that this simple railcard could boost off-peak travel as well as reducing taxpayer subsidy – perhaps by as much as £20 million. This is money that could be used for investment elsewhere in the rail network. Railcards are simple and well understood by the public and this would be popular and profitable. We would be able to reward those who purchase annual season tickets for commuting to work. And crucially this could also help to reduce car travel, and hence carbon emissions associated with it, contributing to meeting our climate change targets.