Evening Call: Labour's plan to slash rail fares is good politics, but questionable policy

It's a neat idea – but what will do to the experience of actually getting on a train?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

One explanation for déjà vu is that it results from a glitch in which the conscious mind receives reports of a single experience twice, in quick succession, so that the second comes accompanied by the eerie sense that you’ve had this experience before. Another is that you actually have had this experience before. It’s the latter that long-term readers of my train commentary might be about to experience, because I’m fairly sure I’ve written this take before, so please bear with me and don’t have nightmares.

Anyway, the day’s big policy story: Labour is promising to cut rail fares across the board by a third, although some rush-hour tickets would be as much as 76 per cent cheaper. All this, says shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald, would undo much of the 40 per cent fare rise seen since the Tories came to power in 2010, and would help address the climate crisis by encouraging people out of their cars. 

On top of that, as part of its plan for rail nationalisation, the party is promising to make train travel free for the under-16s, and to build a central online booking portal without booking fees. It puts the cost of the plan at £1.5bn a year, to be paid for by redirecting Vehicle Excise Duty from the roads budget. Lovely stuff.

One critique of this plan you can find in the wild today is that it’s effectively a bung for the rich. Regular rail passengers are disproportionately likely to live in and around London, where the rail network is, if not good, then at least comprehensive and broadly functional. The benefits of this plan are thus more likely to flow to, say, a rich banker commuting from Sevenoaks than a poor careworker living in Sheffield. Ergo, it’s not progressive. 

That’s true, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s a critical flaw. Redirecting funding from roads to rail should encourage people out of their cars, thus reducing both pollution and emissions. Whoever the people in question are, redirecting subsidies from carbon-spewing transport modes to greener ones strikes me as A Good Thing. 

Where I do have questions is over what all this will do to the experience of actually getting on a train. If you make something cheaper, you’d expect people to buy more of it, and a lot of trains are over-crowded as it is. Indeed, one reason some fares are so ridiculously high at the moment is that the operators use pricing to manage demand. (John Band explained all this on CityMetric in 2015.)

There are ways of increasing capacity on the network, of course – longer trains, cleverer signalling, building HS2 (which, ignore the nay-sayers, we should absolutely, definitely do). But all those things will take both money and time, and it’s not clear where either are coming from. There’s a real danger that simply cutting fares will mean more people bundle onto trains that simply don’t have space for them.

All that said, whatever the merits of the policy, my instinct is that this is good politics for Labour. Partly because it’s the sort of thing that will appeal to a lot of voters who feel ripped off by the current system – but mostly because it’s forced the Tories to put out statements which imply they think that everything is currently fine when it very obviously isn’t. I’m not convinced this policy is a good idea for the railways – but I suspect it is one for the Labour Party.

Hungry for more rail commentary? Stephen is here for you, arguing that Labour could make its policy much better by changing just one word. To find out which, you’ll have to click.

Good day for...

The Labour social media campaign, after new research from social monitoring firm Crowdtangle found that Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely crushing his rivals in at least one key battleground: Facebook. 

Posts from the Labour leader are harnessing significantly more engagement than those from Boris Johnson, but both leaders are far ahead of their parties. More on that from Chris Stokel-Walker.

Bad day for...

German centrist dads, after leftists Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans beat the establishment candidates to win the joint leadership of Germany’s Social Democratic Party this weekend. German press reaction, writes our international editor Jeremy Cliffe, “ranges from sad resignation to something verging on hysteria”. Read more here.

Quote of the day

“She was fearless, she was a warrior, she was going to change the world. Maybe she will.”

Colleen Moore, a lecturer in criminology at Anglia Ruskin University, pays tribute to Saskia Jones, one of the two people killed in Friday’s London Bridge attack. The internet is awash with comments like this about both Jones and Jack Meritt, who were attending an event celebrating the prison-based education project Learning Together when the attack happened. It breaks your heart.

Everybody’s talking about

The continuing life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, after a screenshot of what purported to be a military WhatsApp group discussing her maj’s death from heart failure circulated on social media last night. If you wondered why everyone was making baffling jokes about Gibbo and his mates Josh, Burnsy, Morty and Cheeks suddenly setting the news agenda, this is why. 

Personally I am very relieved that the Queen is not dead. Partly because anyone’s death diminishes me; partly because I don’t much fancy the idea of King Charles presiding over an inconclusive election result. Although I can’t help but think that learning that our longest-reigning head of state has died from a screenshot with that avatar is exactly what Britain deserves.

Everybody should be talking about...

The fact world-famous heartthrob Hugh Grant is wandering about north London, banging on doors and trying to persuade people to vote Liberal Democrat – specifically, for Luciana Berger. 

I sometimes feel like I slipped into a particularly surreal fever dream sometime in early 2016, and have yet to awake.

Housekeeping

Evening Call is published as a free email newsletter at 5pm every weekday. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.