The British case for free train travel
The UK has much to learn from its Spanish counterparts
RENFE, the Spanish national railway company, once stole my girlfriend’s father. There were four of us, returning by train from Santiago de Compostela to Bilbao, after completing a long distance walk across northern Spain. What we had failed to understand was that only part of the train was going to Bilbao. Several carriages, including the restaurant car, were detached en route and carted off to San Sebastian, some fifty miles to the east of Bilbao. At the critical moment, my then-girlfriend and I were in our reserved seats, while her father and the fourth member of our party had left us to guard the luggage as they tucked into some splendid Iberian cuisine in the restaurant car. You can guess what happened next. Hilarity, as they say, ensued.
That unfortunate but in retrospect endlessly amusing incident remains my only direct experience of Spain’s rail network. However, I may soon be tempted back. The Spanish government has announced that for the last third of this year most rail travel on the RENFE network will be free of charge. Only the longest intercity routes, above 300km, will not be included in the scheme. In British terms this would mean free travel from London as far as Exeter, Swansea, Liverpool and York, or from Edinburgh and Glasgow to almost anywhere in Scotland. Similar, albeit less ambitious, policies have been rolled out in Germany and Austria, as European governments look for ways to cushion the blow of inflation and higher energy bills.
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The thinktankers and the analysts are already arguing about the feasibility of the notion, with the debate breaking down along fairly predictable partisan lines. But regardless of whether free train travel is an outbreak of unsustainable wild-eyed communist nonsense or an example of brave pro-social government action in the face of capitalist crisis (delete as applicable), as an ideal it does offer a glimpse of what a more civilised transport future might look like. If we took the same approach, railway usage would almost certainly increase sharply, and with it demand for railways in areas that are currently poorly served by them.
This could mean the re-opening of lines closed over the course of the twentieth century, or even the creation of brand new lines and new stations, to serve new towns, or those that have expanded greatly since Beeching and his predecessors wielded their axes so brutally. As more people travelled by train, fewer people would use the roads, with all the attendant environmental and health benefits. Indeed, such a radical alteration in comparative transport costs could encourage more people to forsake the mechanical Jacobin altogether, surely a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Quite apart from anything else, railways are just better than the alternatives. Beautifully and easily integrated with the landscape, with time and space to reflect as the world rushes by. Going by train means that you can start a novel or a love affair, or both, on the way. If we are going to massively subsidise any form of transport — and we spend tens of billions on cars and lorries, and on their various externalities — then there is much to be said for the iron road.
You’ve got my vote, Niall but a quarter of the current price would be ok. My mother lived in the North of England. Very good train service (3 hours for 250+ miles)and for one person it makes financial sense to go by train but 2+ makes it a luxury. Alternative is a minimum 5 hour hellish motorway drive with all the inevitable hold ups. Pricing of railway journeys is farcical. Freeing up a bit of our horrendously clogged road network by a encouraging sensibly priced rail travel makes a lot of sense.
Like the NHS free at the point of delivery the Railways would develop a vast and expensive bureaucracy and service would be rationed and scarce.
I rember in my youth returning north by train from Bari in Italy where the carriage was so jammed with people that the toilet was full of cases and those wishing to use it had to be handed over the head of the crowds in the corridor and use the toilet with the door open as there was no room to move the cases. The journey was cheap but not one to be repeated.
Of course, health and safety would prevent this occurring today, instead you wouldn’t be able to travel when you wanted to unless you booked well in advance just as you have to book a GP appointment well ahead of need now.
Oh dear, we can’t have those plebs filling up the trains now, can we.
Have 1st class paying carriages: problem solved.
I’ve been on trains like that back in the 1980s.
These days in Europe you are far more likely to find a fast, comfortable, efficient, and reasonably priced rail network – outside the UK of course.
My experience was in the 1960s but even then I remember boarding an Italian express train in error whose level of comfort was superior to anything then available in England. Unfortunately, the extra cost of travel on this train was so high that as an impoverished student I had to make my excuses and exit at the next station.
Make travel to work a full tax break item.. that provide an immediate telief to the most affected..
Sounds like my one from Rome to Brindisi.
I’m always a bit dubious about “we should learn from (X policy n foreign country that’s only just been announced)”.
Germany has had a cut-price €9 (or something) special for most of the summer and trains have been mobbed, standing-room only. Not much scope for starting new novels, or love affairs, unless involuntary frottage counts.
I had a really wonderful experience of that kind in a London tube once: I had to apologise ..twice!
To my surprise she was AOK with the experience herself! Ah happy days: pre woke, pre me too etc..
As you type she was probably down the local nick filing a complaint
In the early 1980s the railway network had special offers on a few weekends when you could travel anywhere for a pound. I remember walking up the road to Brighton Station on morning and the crowds arriving and leaving looked like extras in a film fleeing a war.
The last time I traveled by train in the UK – almost five years ago – it was so crowded that one poor girl fainted. And that was in December. It must be even worse in the summer.
Not the FB of Quislington fame?
Yes. I tried to subscribe today. No payment channels were offered to me but I am now allowed to comment again, which is all rather strange.
Funnily enough a new client of mine revealed that he loves Unherd and has an office in the same building. As such he often sees Freddy and co coming and going.
Perhaps not for long. Entered debit card details but they sent something to my phone containing a link, and my phone is an old and battered Nokia. I do not have a ‘connected’ smartphone. If only I could just send a cheque!
I to have “an old battered Nokia “, perhaps these are the last two on the Planet?
I affectionately refer to mine as the ‘Nag’ phone.
While I’m here, can I be the first to point out that one rather wishes the Germans had thought of rationing gas 80 years go. Talk about a day late and a dollar short…
The fact the passengers don’t pay does not make train travel free. It means the tax payers pay for it, or as the taxpayers can take no more strain, they forego something to give a minority free travel by train.
In other words, it is a totally daft idea. Those who travel should and must pay. There is a case for “free” health care and I suppose maybe for “free” education, but none for free trains. Free in every case to the users remember, not no cost.
If we can find a way to reduce the costs of running a railway system, then so much the better. The best would be to privatise it, but as history of the last ten years shows, Whitehall will slowly erode that!
Current exorbitant prices in the UK slash the earnings of commuting workers. I would like to read an analysis outlining the reasons for huge train fares. I like the cultural point this article made. I expect more people travelling by trains and less cars on the road would help the environment too.
The Heritage Site | Adam McDermont | Substack
It’s not free, it’s never free. It’s about who pays. The individual passenger using the service or the rest of us through our taxes. Before 2019 the rail industry already had an annual taxpayer subsidy of £5 billion. Thanks to Covid, season tickets have fallen by 75%, total annual ticket sales have dropped from £11 billion to £5.9 billion. Facetime, Teams, Zoom and Google Teams have made working from home a real alternative that business management now accept. Don’t use taxpayers cash to subsidise the railways, use it to upgrade the broadband network. The RMT can’t hold the Government to ransom today any more than the NUM could in the 1980s. Welcome to the 21st century.
I think it needs a proper discussion with numbers to come to an informed view. National Rail state that train companies make 2% profit and that the UK actually had faster growth in rail use than comparable European companies. Would we actually save all the money on the road network or would we need to spend it anyway etc etc.
Free train travel is of little use if the unions are preventing the trains from running.
The point is well made except of course that nothing is really free apart from air, rain and sunshine (although govts are probably working taxing those as well!)
And since all money eventually makes it’s way back to the govt in taxes of various kinds it’s a question if choice.
But do we want to choose ourselves who pays how much for what: or do we let the govt choose on our behalf is all that is in question when you boil it all down.
Why do some people think that “free” = “civilized” despite the extensive evidence that usually “free” = “poor quality”.
If there’s a serious problem with English citizens not being able to afford train tickets, there are vastly better ways to solve this than making all the trains free and open to anyone.
Rather than provide free rail travel, it might be more useful to spend money on replacing diesel buses with electric ones, and invest in railway electrification. Electric buses should make our cities quieter and cleaner and be more likely to wean people out of their cars.
As for the railways, it would make sense to electrify certain key freight routes (such as Felixstowe to the Midlands). Although cars and small vehicles can run off batteries, it is much more problematical to do this with HGVs, especially those operating over long distances. Use electric freight trains to connect the ports with major conurbations and use HGVs for the last few miles.
E periculoso sporgesi
The management of the Railways have been yet another great British fiasco.
The 1955 so called Modernisation Plan was a shambles, and the much reviled Dr Richard Beeching was given the unenviable task of saving what he could of the wreck.
Sadly his bold plan was never fully implemented, and thus many miles of almost worthless track are still maintained.*
The final solution, hit apron by that latter day genius John Major was ‘Privatisation’.
Needless to say it is a contradiction in terms, as it has meant enormous public subsidies to notional private companies,
the overall ‘bill’ far exceeding that previously paid to the ossified British Rail. Genius indeed!
(* For example do we really need a railway between Newcastle and Edinburgh? Beeching didn’t think so.)
(For example do we really need a railway between Newcastle and Edinburgh? Beeching didn’t think so.)
Er, yes (was that a trick question?)
Beeching II and Sir David Serpells 1982 Report recommended closing the ECML from Newcastle northwards.
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