Amy Dwyer discusses national rail reform.
If you stopped anyone in the street and asked them what the problems with the railway network are, they would likely be able to suggest several issues. I doubt any of these would be graffiti. Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, demonstrated his complete lack of awareness of public opinion and of the state of the rail network, when he claimed that removing graffiti would be a highly effective way to increase numbers using the railways.
It is not graffiti that puts many of us off using trains, and ensures that the rail network remains a fall-back option for commuters. It is the extortionate prices of train tickets and the lack of reliability of service. For too long British commuters have been punished for choosing to travel via public transport, with unjustifiable prices for tickets. As it stands, it is far cheaper to fly across Europe than it is to travel across the country by train. Similarly, trains are more crowded than ever and more services are delayed. This, alongside the annual rise of rail fares means that the country that invented the railways now has a network that commuters don’t enjoy using. When rail fares rose by an average of 3.1% in England and Wales in 2019, protests broke out at several major train stations. In response, then transport secretary Chris Grayling blamed unions for rain delays and claimed that the government had made a ‘record investment’ in rail transport. This laughs in the face of those using the rail transport and those who work on it and invalidates their experiences.
Until the transport secretary recognises the real problems with our public transport network then we will also seriously struggle to meet any climate change targets. Labour needs to be championing investment in the railways so that it is a consistent and reliable alternative to driving, we need more trains and reliable timetables to take more people off the roads. The longer the government waits to provide the transport network with sorely needed investment, the harder it will be to reach climate change targets by internationally set deadlines.
Personally, I have not noticed graffiti on trains at all. And I doubt that the transport secretary would be able to find many people who would rather be late for work or a social engagement, than travel on a train that has graffiti on it. It is not an important issue and to suggest that it is the most important issue preventing people from using trains is a gross misunderstanding of the problem.
It is likely that such a belief held by the transport secretary will seem to many living in the north, as a clear example of the detachment of Westminster politics from northern England. London is perhaps the only city in the UK where citizens do not need a car and can rely on public transport to get to work and for leisure purposes. The same cannot be said in Manchester or Newcastle. This economic inequality is only widening and the failure of the central government to recognise this and an inability to accept the major inherent faults of the rail network only highlight the issue.
Pacer trains can be seen as emblematic of this, with leaking roofs, failing heaters and overcrowded carriages. They are symbols of an underfunded transport network. These trains were introduced largely in northern England and parts of Wales, rather than places with more demand in the South East. While this may have originally been simply down to demand, over time it has become a concrete illustration of the neglect of transport in the north.
Labour needs to be at the forefront of a revival of our public transport network. British commuters should and need to be able to consider travelling by rail as an affordable and reliable alternative to driving. Given the context of needing to win back support in the north, prioritising rail network reform could be vital. We need extensive public consultation to gauge the mood in communities who have turned away from the railways and a political will to address these issues.
Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament. She is also Women’s Officer for the North West Young Fabians.
She tweets at @AmyDwyer23