Changing just one word would make Labour's train fares policy much, much better

Labour have correctly identified a major problem in public policy with their new fares pledge. 

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Good policy has three elements: it correctly identifies a problem, it finds an adequate solution, and it ticks both those boxes in a way that can command enduring popular support.

Labour has a new transport pledge: to cut train fares by a third by redirecting funds from the Department for Transport’s road-building budget towards further subsidising train fares. The problem is correctly identified: successive British governments have become addicted to building more and more roads, which stokes further demand to use them, which increases the amount of car journeys – and the only way the United Kingdom can meaningfully meet even the Conservative Party’s 2050 zero-carbon target, let alone Labour’s much more ambitious 2030 pledge, is to sharply reduce the number of individual car journeys in the United Kingdom.

Electric vehicles can reduce the carbon footprint for essential journeys, which will largely be the preserve of deliveries to private homes and businesses, and to people such as carpenters and plumbers, whose jobs cannot be adequately delivered by public transport alone. But private consumption is going to have to reduce, which means drastically increasing the availability and quality of public transport – and discouraging, via the removal of hidden subsidies, the use of car ownership.

What about the solution: those subsidised train fares? Well, this bit isn’t as good. Why? Because while increasing the availability, quality and frequency of train journeys is part of reducing the number of individual journeys by car, it is only a part, and it is the part that takes the longest to do. High Speed Two, a vital part of increasing the capacity of the United Kingdom’s railways, is going to take decades. In addition, train travel will never be able to solely replace car ownership alone. Other modes of public transport will play a bigger role.

The argument being put about by some, that the subsidy is bad because it targets “middle-class” or middle- to upper-income voters, is I think a bad one. Ultimately we all urgently need everyone, regardless of where they are in the income distribution, to take fewer individual car journeys and to use public transport more. That will likely involve a degree of subsidy. We, in any case, have been intensely relaxed about – in common with the rest of the democratic world – large subsidies, both overt and hidden, towards personal car usage.

The problem is that this subsidy isn’t being targeted at the most effective agent of reducing car ownership around – buses – but is instead being spent on trains.

Governments could and should do more in terms of increasing railway infrastructure, but in the short-term, the easiest, quickest and most effective way of doing that is by spending more money on bus journeys. This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: it takes a matter of months to get a new bus on the road. It takes considerably longer to increase train capacity. British trains are already over capacity, which is why they are almost always so crowded. The United Kingdom badly needs to fix this, but in order to hit all three parties' climate targets, the immediate solution of buses is require. Bus journeys are, any case, always going to form the backbone of a decent public transport system. Labour should instead divert these funds into cutting bus fares, not train fares, by a third.

Doing this would build on the already very positive direction of travel in Labour's transport plans, of diverting funds to buses and away from cars and road-building. Vehicle excise duty will go towards providing free bus travel for the under-25s - a crucial demographic because if you don't start using a private car, then successive governments don't have to spend ages working out how to wean you off it. Another large chunk of the roadbuilding budget has been diverted into not only reversing cuts to bus routes since 2010, but to effectively double the UK's bus services. 

So why, given Labour already has a very serious offer on buses, not give people commuting by train a little bit extra? In addition to the issues already discussed, there are other reasons why, in Labour's shoes, I'd be putting my fare subsidy on buses not trains. 

It comes back to the third part of the equation: is this a policy solution that can command enduring public support? I use the word “enduring” for a reason: decreasing train fares is obviously going to be popular. But if you want the level of system change necessary to reduce our carbon footprint, you need it not just to be popular today but in a year’s time, and indeed for it to be so popular that it commands cross-party consensus. In the short term, because of the longterm neglect of railway infrastructure and the pressure on existing services, it's not clear if you can increase the number of people commuting by train - and those who do commute will do so in increasingly crowded conditions in the short term, potentially triggering a backlash. 

The advantage of using the money freed up from the roads budget to subsidising bus fares is that the benefit is swift and immediate – over the course of a parliament, you will see real shifts from car ownership to bus travel. The more popular and widely-used alternatives to car ownership are, the harder they are to unpick. We can see this in London, which, because of its far more advanced and widely used bus system, was the only public transport system in the United Kingdom to survive the 1980s passion for deregulating and defunding bus services almost unscathed.

So Labour has correctly identified the problem: but if it wants to meet its climate targets, it is bus fares, not train fares, that it should be further subsidising.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.