Rich man’s toys

Our dear Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond said something to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee yesterday, and the BBC decided that it was The News. I don’t think Hammond had intended for it to be The News. He said:

It’s an uncomfortable fact that the railway is already, relatively, a rich man’s toy*. The whole railway. People who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole. Simple fact. The assumptions underlying the pattern of use of HS2 assume similar pricing to the West Coast Main Line, which ranges from eye-wateringly expensive to really quite reasonable if you dig around and buy in advance. And therefore the assumption that the socio-economic mix of passengers will be broadly similar to those currently using the West Coast Main Line.

Nobody is really commenting on the fact that Hammond was not merely saying that people are priced off the railways, but that it doesn’t matter if people are priced off HS2 because they’re already priced off the railways. I would have thought that The News would have wanted to play up the HS2 connection.

But people are questioning whether it’s really true that train users are rich. It sounds like a convenient setup for bashing railways and promoting roads: the poor can’t afford to use railways, therefore anybody who wants decent, affordable railways is an enemy of the poor. Spend all the money on more road subsidies investment and fuel tax cuts instead.

I’m afraid it’s true. The National Travel Survey gives us information on modal usage and split by income quintile for a sample of the population:


(image nicked from Fairness in a car dependent society [PDF])

The railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor** — about four times as much.


(image nicked from the centre for cities)

5% of those in the highest income group use rail as their main transport mode, compared to 2% for those in the lowest income group.*** But, wait, there’s another difference between those two groups, isn’t there? It turns out that the motor car is a rich person’s toy too. Poop- poop!

But the NTS reveals something else:

(image nicked from Harry Rutter’s Street Talk)

Travel is a rich person’s toy, and that makes better employment opportunities and services a rich person’s toy.

One of the best ways to overcome that is to invest in local transport, and in local transport that anybody can afford and always will be able to afford; the sort of local transport that will stimulate town centre renewal rather than further drive decline. The bicycle, for example.

Of course, Hammond thinks that investment in transport for the rich is good for all of us: the company director who jumps on HS2 for the Channel Tunnel or Heathrow will be employing lots of people at all levels in Manchester or Leeds. Allegedly. I suspect he’s maybe more likely to be visiting his contractors in the far east, or his accountant in Switzerland.

* This was a quote from the question he had been asked by Julie Hilling, in turn a slogan used by the anti-HS2 campaigners.

** Yes, “the railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor” is subtly different to Hammond’s claim that “people who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole” — the former is about distance, the latter about users. One rich person doing the length of the UK would, by my metric, have used the railway considerably more than a dozen poor people popping into their town centres. If you can find better data, do share.

*** Thanks to Tom for pointing out the mistake in original wording here.

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15 responses to “Rich man’s toys

  1. Interestingly you graphic shows that the lowest and the highest income groups both use the bicycle for 2% of journeys. Also that those in the 2nd and 4th quintiles travel the furtherest distance by bicycle per year.

  2. The lowest graph is a bit out of date, covering the data from 1999 to 2001. More recent data can be found on page 21 of this: http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/fairness_car_dependant.pdf

    It might be skewed by rich London commuters who recognise that driving is a stupid way to commute in cities. Or it might be that richer people have more choice in where to live and so pick quieter places with fewer barriers to cycling.

    Or it might just be random noise in the data.

  3. Err, your graph doesn’t show that ‘those in the highest income group make 5% of their journeys by rail, compared to 2% for those in the lowest income group’ – it says ‘5% of the highest-income people make *most* of their journeys by rail’, presumably because the highest-income group includes more people who do a daily rail commute to Central London (a place noted both for high income and for easy accessibility by rail).

    The interesting statistic would be the wealth of people who drove a lot – it’s not immediately obvious from your ‘distance travelled per person per year per mode’ plot, but I think it’s skewed to wealth only a bit less than for train users.

  4. The biggest barrier to using train for me is the having to book months in advance and travel at very silly times to get to the same price as a car journey. The Airline Pricing system is what puts a lot of people at my income bracket and bellow of using the train (my example journey http://skippy.org.uk/social-and-anti-social-transport/)

    I commute by bike; and walk most evenings; but for long distance its a no brainier for me to use the car;

  5. Who uses rail is quite a bit constrained by where the rail runs, and the supply of that rail. If the supply is constrained but the service is good, and “car use” is charged through congestion time instead of money (congestion charges, expensive fuel, highway tolls), it is no surprise that rail becomes the transport of choice for rich people; they will bid up the housing with easy access to rail stations.

    We get this some here in the US Northeast, with the Boston-NYC Amtrak run. Driving in NYC is loathsome (congestion and parking are both vile), flying Boston-NYC is not faster than the train when you include inconvenience of security and to/from airport, and both endpoints of the train are well-located and well-connected. The Acela (fastest train, not really that fast by Euro standards) runs almost entirely full, and tickets are not cheap. Toss in wireless and free movement while you travel, of course rail becomes a rich-man’s toy. Amtrak south of DC has an entirely different demographic.

  6. Two things: The data doesn’t tell us what is the cause and what the effect, or look at the many other factors that influence travel choices.
    Also, it’s likely that those who earn more are prepared to commute longer distances for their job. E.g. Would you travel an hour or more to work in a shop for minimum wage?
    I’m worried about the link to HS2 in the quote though!

  7. The more money you have the more CO2 you produce, howver green you consider yourself to be!

    Anyway, this problem isn’t anyhing new.

    30 odd years ago we heard of the need for making trains and buses more affordable in order to lessen car use.

    It never happened.

    The grim truth is that nobody wants it to happen except greens, and they only want it to happen for everyone else, not themselves.

  8. @ed – I find your last remark to be evidence-free and offensive. Some of us do put our money where our mouths are — the home we bought 17 years ago, we chose because (among other things) it had good access to transit. When I worked in a transit-accessible direction, I took the bus and subway. Now, when I don’t, I ride my bike about half-time (it’s a 10-mile one-way commute — how far do you drive?). When my son had a summer job in Cambridge (MA) he also took a combination of bicycle, bus, and subway.

    In particular, I am doing my best to obtain infrastructure that I don’t personally need; I started cycling young, got more or less trained as an effective cyclist, and can ride pretty happily in conditions that are objectively atrocious. I am also an engineer, and can observe the utter failure of Effective Cycling to get 99% of the population onto bikes over a period of 4 decades, and so I know that what works for me apparently does not work for most people. If I want them to get the same benefits that I do (I perceive quite a few) we need better cycling infrastructure and/or fewer cars on the road. One way to deal with the long-haul transit problem is trains, and bikes in turn can be used to extend the size of the feeder area for a train station without requiring the use of cars (and their accompanying bulk, noise, danger, traffic, and parking problems).

    So WTF do you think you are doing to make the world better for other people? Or are you just a cynical shit that cannot imagine anything but hypocrisy on the part of someone else?

  9. We could always do as the French do, and make sure that rail travel is affordable to everyone. But of course that might mean ending the couple of billion a year that’s transferred from taxpayers to train company profits…

  10. So from a fairness point of view (rather than the many other benefits of rail), should a progressively-minded government:-

    a) invest more in rail subsidies, allowing rail companies to keep fares down to a point where the less well off can actually afford to travel by train?

    b) invest less in rail, because it’s a regressive distribution of resources & the state shouldn’t be subsidising the upper-middle-class.

    c) invest a LOT more in rail, building new lines that go places where the less well off live & work.

    d) develop more targeted rail travel subsidies aimed at low income groups, perhaps encouraging them to use spare capacity on the network, and distributing rail spend more fairly across society? (though bearing in mind low income workers are probably least able to e.g. demand flexible working hours that allows them to travel off-peak)

    That said.. given that the rural rail network is sparse, and the urban network already bursting at the seams in the rush hour, perhaps the comparatively low modal share for buses merits more investigation. Given that they’re inclusive, relatively inexpensive, safer/greener than the same number of people travelling by car, and have better modal share with low incomes than high incomes, it seems insane that the Tories are cutting rural bus services (unless you follow their logic of “screw everyone who doesn’t vote for us”, that is).

  11. Travel (other than under your own power) is a rich man’s toy. By all means poke fingers at whichever mode of transport you dislike at the moment but bear in mind this:

    When the oil runs out only the rich will travel far. Squabble about who is considerably richer than you for now, but accept you are merely rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.

  12. @Dr2chase, haven’t you heard of the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude of most greens?

    If you are offended by generalisations that’s your business.

    I know one person who claims to be green and actually takes it seriously. Over the years I’ve known dozens of eco-types who do nothing to save the planet except tell everyone else to do it.

    In the public sphere we have mega energy users like Al Gore. In my private sphere I have a friend who has claimed to be eco for 20 odd years and can bore for Britain on the topic. He and his wife have just bought their daughter a car now she’s passed her driving test. That makes them a four car family as they bought their son one last year.

    As someone who is now in his mid-50s and has never, ever driven a car more miles during the year than I’ve cycled, I reckon I’m exactly the type of person greens rave about. However decades of experience has taught me that most of the green talk from business, government and private individuals is just hot air and rarely backed up by action.

  13. @ed: neither you nor I knows a randomly selected statistical sample of “Greens”, so I think it is best not to assume the worst. I will, however, assume widespread ignorance on the part of humans, and a powerful desire to conform to the herd (I think we can agree on these). I would add to this, a world of hucksters and self-promoters looking to make a quick buck, contributing to the general store of ignorance with their blather and snake oil sales.

    I think, also, that you have to note the difference between promoting government policy for everyone, and personal actions. For example, I think I should pay taxes at a higher rate, provided that everyone who makes as much or more money than I do also pays that fee. This statement is entirely consistent with me not paying taxes at a higher rate all on my lonesome — because my belief includes everyone else with my income paying higher taxes, and as yet, they are not.

    So from this, I see several opportunities for apparent “hypocrisy” to arise. It’s entirely possible that people are ignorant of relative train costs and expenses. For example, in the US, one good thing that can be said for the NY-Boston Amtrak stretch is that it consumes no subsidy; but there are other sections that are more lightly used, some used by the relatively well-off, and some used (based on my sample of one trip) by the not-so-well off. Sorting out subsidy from demographics and routes is tricky.

    Another example, from the world of global warming, is diet. For some bizarre reason the idea has sprung up that the most important thing to do is eat locally, when in practice the most important thing to do is not eat dead mammals. How did the less-effective idea get so much traction?

    I am not sure what road pricing formulas are used in the UK, but in the US apparently everybody subsidizes heavy trucking; road damage is proportional to at least the 3rd power of wheel weight, and our use taxes are not. On the other hand, delivery of goods appears to be vital to our various economies in ways that delivery of people in motorized armored umbrella-wheelchairs is not; we have much more economical ways to deliver people, including subways (in Boston at least, many more people per “lane” than a road), bicycles, and feet. There are two issues — uncongested availability of the roads, and durability and destruction of the roads. The economy probably does better if we generally avoid overuse of cars in/near urban areas (less time wasted in traffic jams by delivery trucks), but at the same time those trucks must be appropriately taxed for their gradual destruction of the road, and also appropriately regulated in their behavior so that the would-be automobile drivers/passengers feel comfortable without their cars. So in this case, you can get a sort of hypocrisy where people declare “if the roads were run ‘right’, I would give up my car”. If their conditions for “right” are utterly unattainable fantasies, I’m willing to call it effectively hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, their conditions describe something already demonstrated to work somewhere else (e.g., the Netherlands), then I cannot call them hypocrites, because their conditions are clearly attainable.

  14. I’m not sure that most greens do have a “do as I say” attitude. They recognise that the world is currently organised in such a way as to make “being green” more difficult than it should be, and to make damaging the world much easier than it should be. Being not green, like being obese, can’t be dismissed entirely as a personal failure: they’re the natural product of a physical, political, and cultural environment that makes the wrong things easy and the right things difficult.

    I think most greens probably know that, and while they might still see value in trying to persuade you to behave differently, they know that the world won’t be changed that way. Most green campaigns are targeted at governments and other powers, asking them to reorder the world to make the good things easier and the bad things harder — all of those varieties of behavioural change that don’t rely on persuasion/hectoring of individuals. Like introducing kerbside recycling collections and building good cycle tracks, rather than just hectoring people to take their recycling to the plant and ride their bikes on busy roads.

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