How should rail in the community be subsidised?

22 Feb

“Why should taxpayers subsidise branch lines”, is a popular argument and the instant reaction is that they shouldn’t. However a popular problem amongst developed nations is road congestion and the cost of access charges to the road network (mainly Car Tax). Leaving aside the argument for extra taxes/charges to rebalance the “Economic externalities caused by heavy car and road usage” (health and pollution) the argument still begins to unwind when comparisons are made between rural country lanes used by 3 cars an hour (which are still maintained at great cost to the taxpayer) and branch lines which often sport much higher usage but are constantly under political and corporate threat.

The return question is “Should we therefore close or neglect rural country lanes to save money?” Of course not as they serve a purpose. My response is therefore that  should be supported, although not by national government but by a holistic transport body that operates at the local government level with a view across all modes of transport.

The Länder Ticket

The Länder tickets that DB offers, allow up to 5 people to travel throughout a specific Lander (German County or State) on non IC/ICE trains after 9am and all day weekends.  This ticket costs around €29, crucially it includes travel on private railways and city transit networks like metro and bus. This allows people to travel a great distance and promotes use of more rural routes and connections with one ticket.

This ticket improves accessibility and ridership levels but also addresses the cost/benefit concern of groups and families which is that when you multiply the cost of rail tickets by 2 or 3 taking the car is soon more economical to the point that any extra travel time incurred by going via road is outweighed by the total cost of the trip compared to the train.

Service Cross Subsidy

Secondly, to ensure the consumer accessibility of the IC/ICE service DB frequently extend the trains past primary destinations like Munich and Koln through to secondary destinations, often by surprising routes, but it still works by cross subsidising revenue from the long distance inter city ridership onto the secondary branch and/or destination . (As another quick example TGVs from Paris to Bordeaux go to Arcachon 2 or 3 times a day). This allows the Train Operating Company (TOC) to use a single train service that has already served it’s profitable aim by reaching it’s initial primary destination to further subsidise the branch line or secondary service and in doing so increase awareness, ridership and revenue on the secondary route at minimal commercial risk and cost.

Essentially people should learn not to directly relate the word ‘subsidy’ with the phrase ‘taxpayer money’ as there are many other options for subsidy than the public purse.

Finally, there are many more possibilities for support than just a single body or entity working alone. The future of branch lines and secondary routes lies with joined up thinking and team work. Whoever learns to work well together (be they SNCF and Departement Acquitaine, FirstGreatWestern and North Somerset Council or DB and NordRheinWestFalen) at a really local level can look forward to progressive and enchanced usership. Decreasing politics and increasing cooperation and awareness will be the key.

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