So the government has said that they will give a whole load of money towards improving the rail network. This can only be a good thing, but it does seem to be a case of too little too late in a lot of respects. For all of the governments talk of green and sustainable transport policies, we're seeing a lot of funding for roads and aviation, but not a lot else. Road and air travel are cheaper in real terms now than they have ever been, yet since privatisation rail travel has become quite a lot more expensive. This is despite the fact that more people are travelling by rail all of the time.
The ESRC have some interesting statistics on travel, such as the cost to the UK of road accidents being 16 billion pounds per year. Road travel is not cheap, but the government doesn't worry about paying for roads and road improvement with public money. Why should the railways be any different? It goes without saying that I think they should be renationalised, but what else could be done to improve them?
I think that a big improvement could be achieved by putting a much higher tax on road transport of goods that could be transported by train, for one thing. We need new train lines to new depots in each town and city where goods can be unloaded and only the last part of the journey done by road. It is madness that we drive lorries with containers on them down motorways when rail is so much more efficient.
The railway network needs to be expanded. Where old lines closed in the 60's remain clear, they should be either reopened or protected from any development until such a time as they are economically viable. These lines were viable once, and the population was smaller then. If the costs of road transport start reflecting the true environmental costs, then these rail links will undoubtedly become useful again.
Fares need to become cheaper. Renationalisation is necessary for this, since I think it is fundamentally wrong to pay a public subsidy to a private company that makes a profit for its shareholders. If the railways were nationalised we could put an extra tax on petrol for road transport.. a couple of pence per litre say, and use that as a direct rail subsidy. Taxes on larger cars could also go to public transport, since taxing luxury cars takes the burden from the poor, who may still need to drive.
Finally, we need to think very hard about the way we build our towns and cities. As long as people feel that they need their cars then they will probably keep them, so we should do as much as we can to remove that need. This is already true in most of London and other big cities, where cars are a luxury. All new housing developments should include local shops and pubs etc within half a mile of any house to prevent people from having to travel just to buy food. This isn't some pipe-dream since this always used to be the case! Rail and buses should link residential areas so that people can get to work, and there should be tax incentives to live in the town or city you work in, to reduce the need to travel. We can do this if we try. If we don't tackle it and just bury our heads in the sand, things are only going to get worse... especially when the oil starts to run out.