17: Rail subsidy – an environmental good?

In spite of the relatively high price of petroleum for cars and the economies of carrying large numbers of people on a train, car travel is in general much cheaper than rail travel. This fact is widely viewed as scandalous when considered against successive governments’ objectives of reducing the environmental impacts of car (and lorry) traffic and of reducing the need for more road building to cater for the continuing growth in demand for transport.

In attempting to counter some of this undesirable influence on how people choose to travel, the continued subsidy of rail fares is widely supported. It takes some of the ‘fixed’ costs of providing rail services off the ticket price thereby ostensibly encouraging people with access to a car to use the train more often. This form of public subsidy is also supported because it is seen to be socially progressive. It contributes to ‘levelling up’ the life chances of people who can’t afford cars. And if the subsidy comes from progressive taxation, it is claimed that there is a second redistributive benefit: the rich pay more for something on which the poor are more dependent.

There are good grounds for questioning this reasoning. Several studies have shown that substantial public investment to improve the quality and availability of rail services does not achieve much in terms of changing the minds of people who currently go in a car. Analysis of the effects of current public investment in rail has revealed that it facilitates the rising adoption of geographically-spread lifestyles, albeit in a somewhat less damaging way than occurs with car use. It also indicates that the benefits are consumed in the form of existing rail passengers making more as well as longer journeys. Rail’s share of travel is only marginally increased – and, in any case, accounts for little more than 1% of all personal journeys. Moreover, although social groups A and B pay more in tax they also make a significantly higher use of rail, especially for commuting and inter-city travel.

Clearly, policy needs to be determined against a wider background than its transport implications, especially to ensure that due account is taken of climate change. From this perspective, supporters of the case for continued subsidy of rail point to the fact that rail travel has lower emission levels than driving. An increase in rail patronage, promoted by the subsidy of fares makes the emissions from rail travel per passenger kilometre even lower. However, it is salutary to note that, because the climate change impacts of transport – road and rail – are not adequately factored into costs, taking account of current vehicle occupancy rates, carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile are only about 20% lower by rail than by car. In terms of emissions, it is travel distance which has a more potent effect than relative levels of fuel efficiency: at present, passengers cause less damage travelling 50 miles by car than 80 miles by rail.

Thus, with rail travel directly subsidised and car travel indirectly subsidised, longer distance patterns of travel than would otherwise occur are adopted. Logic suggests that the solution to this dilemma is for the real and perceived costs of car use to be raised substantially to better reflect its disbenefits rather than seeking to compensate for the continued blind eye being turned to the inadequate cover for its climate change impacts.

Indeed. a policy of continued subsidy of rail travel runs totally counter to the ecological imperative of urgently and massively reducing carbon dioxide emissions. What matters is not how efficiently the world’s fossil fuels are being used but whether or not the total gases that are emitted are adding dangerously to their concentration in the atmosphere. Whilst of course lowering the costs of rail use has virtues, subsidising both car and rail simply makes matters worse in this area of public policy that is rapidly being recognised as critical. Of course, this poses political difficulties owing to public opposition to such an approach and its electoral implications. That reflects a failure on the part of successive governments to spell out the compelling case for reversing its attitude to rail travel, with its implication that it is train use is ‘green’.

The Global Commons Institute’s framework strategy of Contraction and Convergence – fairly sharing the planet’s limited and non-negotiable capacity to absorb further emissions without destabilising the climate – appears to be the only realistic means, with an assured prospect of success of ‘saving the planet’. In essence, per capita annual carbon allowances for all energy-based activities are given by government. Individuals can then make their own choice as to how they wish to use this ration. That is very likely to reveal that rail is preferable to car for journeys that have to be made but that current patterns of activity cannot be maintained if damage from climate change is to be drastically reduced. The adoption of this strategy will result in a substantial decline in the demand for both of these energy-intensive and therefore unsustainable forms of travel.


Originally published in Town and Country Planning, April 2001.

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