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30 October 2021

The Conservatives are making the British transport system more absurd than ever

Cheap flights and expensive trains are incentivising people not to go green.

By Jonn Elledge

“Travelling to Cop26 from London you’ll have two viable choices,” Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon tweeted this week. Taking the train from London to Glasgow, he noted, would set you back a cool £135 for a single. A plane, by contrast, would cost just £25. Given that the purpose of the UN’s climate change conference is to find ways of reducing our carbon footprint, and given that internal flights in a country as small as the UK are a brilliant way of pointlessly ramping your carbon consumption up, this feels like a bad joke – one that ends with millions of climate refugees because a large chunk of the planet is suddenly under water.

I’ve been trying to replicate McMahon’s results to check he’s not telling porkies, and it’s not gone well. Firstly, trains from London to Glasgow for the next couple of days are now entirely sold out, thus rendering the price of a ticket on one functionally infinite. Secondly, rail fares change, frequently and bafflingly, because the network uses them to manage demand: we can’t simply substitute next weekend and assume the same prices would have been available this one, if only we’d got in early enough. (Tickets then are still available, generally priced from between £60 and £90.) 

Nonetheless, it’s not as if £135 for a last-minute journey the length of the country is a shockingly unlikely result: we’ve all seen much higher prices for much shorter journeys. You could argue that McMahon is being a bit cheeky, in excluding the expense of getting from city centre to airport, or in ignoring the fact that advance bookings – as most Cop26 attendees presumably have – will have been substantially cheaper. 

But his critique resonated because it feels, broadly, correct. Travelling the “wrong” way – in a puff of carbon dioxide emitted by a flight so brief you spend vastly more time preparing for your plane than actually flying on it – is cheap. Going the “right” way, by a longer but greener and more comfortable train journey, is expensive. The financial incentives are upside down.

McMahon is clear on who to blame, pointing to the decade of inflation-busting rail fare increases since the Tories came to power, which is of course his job. But this is, if not wrong, then at least incomplete.

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Consider two points I just mentioned in passing. Firstly, the longer-distance bit of the rail network uses prices to manage demand, selling cheap tickets on empty trains and more expensive ones on full services. Secondly, this only gets you so far: there isn’t a point at which the network will sell you a ticket to Glasgow Central for £35,000 because, eventually, the tickets sell out. 

The reason this happens is because there’s a limit on the number of passengers you can fit on to the network. Trains can only be so long, if you want them to fit into stations; they can only run so fast or so frequently, because of signalling systems and the fact they’re competing for platform and track space with other routes. There are physical constraints that prevent the network from expanding to meet demand. If last-minute train tickets to Glasgow were suddenly priced at just £60, more people might travel, but more would not have seats. It would just be a horrible experience for everyone involved.

Air travel doesn’t face these constraints. OK, planes are also only so big and airports have limited capacity too – but if, over a period of years, it becomes clear there’s demand for more seats between London and Glasgow, the airline industry can expand to meet that in a way the rail industry cannot. No wonder rail fares are high, and air fares low. Between physics and economics, this is exactly what you’d expect to have happened. 

Where McMahon is right, though, is that the Tory government is at least partially responsible for this. It can make rail cheaper, by investing in infrastructure so that we can run more trains. It can discourage short-haul air travel by taxing them to the hilt, or even, as France is doing, moving to ban them altogether

Rishi Sunak – who, it’s always worth restating, is turning out to be a truly terrible Chancellor – has made it clear he doesn’t want to do either of those things. His Treasury is trying to hack back both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, the government’s two main schemes for adding capacity to our overcrowded rail network. And this week, in the single most baffling move in his Budget, he cut domestic air passenger duty, encouraging internal flights just four days before the UK hosts this year’s major global climate change conference.

The interaction of physics and economics may have got us into this mess, yes, but it’s a Tory Chancellor who’s intent on keeping us there.

[See also: “Utter moral failure”: Why Rishi Sunak’s Budget was anything but green]

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