Calls grow for UK to make public transport free to ease cost of living burden

Spain has announced free tickets for its rail services, and the UK government is being urged to follow suit.

Inside a train station

In a bid to help people with spiralling living costs, the Spanish government has announced train travel on state-owned rail networks will be free of charge from September 1 until the end of the year.

Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez has said that passengers will be able to travel on a number of trains operated by the public train network Renfe at no cost. Multi-journey tickets for local and medium-distance journeys will be free. The initiative excludes single-journey tickets or long-distance travel, according to reports.

Plans to fully subsidise many state-owned Renfe services follows the government’s earlier slashing of the cost of travel on public transport in response to rising energy and inflation rates. A 50% discount on Renfe train tickets was introduced in June.

In a statement, the Spanish ministry of transport said: “This measure encourages to the maximum the use of this type of collective public transport to guarantee the needed daily commute with a safe, reliable, comfortable, economic and sustainable means of transportation, amid the extraordinary circumstances of the steady increase of energy and fuel prices.”

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez said the move is aimed at easing the cost of living crisis.

‘I am fully aware of the daily difficulties that most people face. I know that your salary is getting less and less, that it is difficult to make ends meet, and that your shopping basket is becoming more and more expensive.

‘I am going to work my skin to the bone to defend the working class of this country,” he said.

Spain is not the first European country to announce reduced transport costs to tackle rising fuel prices, inflation and a cost of living crisis.

Germany introduces €9 monthly fares

In May, Germany announced unlimited €9 per month tickets for public transport. The scheme includes all public transport across Germany and runs for three months to the end of August.

The cheap tickets are aimed at offsetting the soaring price of fuel and ease the impact of inflation by getting people to avoid using their cars.

Transport Minister Volker Wissing described the €9-a-month tickets as a great opportunity: “It’s a success that we’ve already sold seven million tickets.”

The same month that Germany reduced the cost of public transport, Ireland cut fares to reduce the cost of living and encourage sustainable transport. Train and bus journeys have been reduced by 20% for the rest of 2022. Young people aged 19 – 23 can get a 50% reduction on fares in Ireland.

In 2021, Austria introduced a ‘climate ticket’ scheme, providing passengers with heavily discounted tickets on public transport to encourage them to leave their cars at home. Costing around €1,095 a year, a ‘Klimaticket’ costs travellers around €3.50 a day.

With many European countries successfully rolling out government-subsidised public transport schemes to help ease the cost of living, calls are being made for the UK, home to the highest fares in Europe, to follow suit.

Richard Burgon Labour MP tweeted:

“Spain’s President yesterday announced that train journeys will be free on short and medium journeys to help with the cost of living crisis.

“He’s also introducing a tax on banks because they’re profiting from higher interest rates.

“Let’s fight for that here too!”

Sentiment shared by trade unionist Howard Beckett, who said:

“Spain has just introduced free rail travel for all local journeys from Sept- March paid by taxing wealth of big energy and finance corporations.

“Long distance fares are also being cut by 50%.

“We need to do the same in the UK.”

Hailing the Spanish government’s move to make public transport free until the end of the year, People’s Momentum said:

“Let’s fight for that here too!”

Writing for Tribune, Chris Saltmarsh, co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal. argues that public transport in Britain should be free. Noting soaring fuel costs, Saltmarsh writes:

“Getting around by car is increasingly out of financial reach for many people, who do not stop needing to get to work, go to the shops, or visit family and friends. Without a counter-measure like free public transport, extortionate fuel prices will drive social isolation and difficulties accessing employment—as well as hunger.

“But free public transport isn’t only crucial for addressing the cost of living crisis. It’s also a vital response to the climate emergency.”

The railway in the UK was privatised from 1994 -1997. Today, private train operating companies run 17 franchises across the rail network.

We Own It, which campaigns to bring rail franchises back into public ownership, notes how since privatisation, rail fares are up in Britain by at least 20% in real terms. Some fares have even risen twice as fast as inflation. The anti-privatisation campaigners pin several factors on the obscenely high fares – privatisation, inadequate government funding, inefficient fragmentation and shareholder profits leaking out of the system.

Analysis by TUC shows that from 2009 to 2019, just before the government announced another hefty rise for season ticket holders, rail fares increased at twice the speed of wages. TUC’s research shows that commuters in the UK spend up to five times more of their salary on rail fares than other European passengers. At the time, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said

“The last thing UK commuters need is another hefty fare increase. We’re already paying the highest ticket prices in Europe to travel on overcrowded and understaffed trains.  

“It’s time to take the railways back into public hands. Every single penny from every single fare should be invested into our railways. This would free up money for much-needed upgrades and lower ticket prices. 

“The number one priority should be running a world-class railway service, not subsidising private train companies.” 

As many European countries announce reduced and even free travel on already cheap, punctual, efficient, and nationalised railways, a second UK-wide rail strike is due to take place on July 30.

Industrial action continues over real terms pay cuts among railway workers, as company directors earn several hundred thousand pounds a year. In 2021, the two highest pad Network Rail directors took home around £1million between them.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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