Sunday 15 December 2019

Free travel passes are pricing the rest of us out of train travel

Irish Rail has put the brakes on falling passenger numbers
Irish Rail has put the brakes on falling passenger numbers
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Train fares are set to rise yet again with Irish Rail increasing prices on two-thirds of its routes. Short-hop trips will increase by 8pc, with inter-city fares also due to increase. It seems that every year the price goes up more than it should, and every year we are officially informed that all of this is going towards giving us a "world-class service."

You see, as a politician you can mess up the public transport system, keep doing so for years, and no one will understand why. Right now, public transport is being left to the old, the young and the desperate, travellers who don't have any other choice. Meanwhile, the misguided generosity of spending €77m a year continues so that all of our over 66s can zip around for free.

Supporters of the free travel scheme say how it gives rural residents access to services. Older people can make local journeys to the shops, or to visit friends, or to participate in community activities. And an active and mobile older population is of huge benefit to us all. Businesses, too, know the value of the "grey pound." Particularly in these credit-squeezed times, the money spent by pensioners who use bus passes to travel to their high street is a real bonus to local economies. Free travel benefits the environment. But still our public transport system is being slowly crushed.

Why are prices going up so much? The answer is straightforward. Transport providers have been threatening recently to withdraw from the free travel scheme, as it isn't covering the cost of offering the service. Free travel is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over, as well as carers and people with disabilities who are receiving social welfare payments.

The number of people using the free travel service has risen massively over the past few years, rising from just over 600,000 recipients in 2001 to almost 800,000 last year. If you take companion passes into account, there are more than 1.1 million customers eligible for free travel. State funding for free travel has been frozen at the same level of €77m for the past four years, placing massive pressure on the providers.

Spending cuts are part of the problem, but it has so much more to do with unsustainable generosity - this very misguided but populist offer of a free and universal travel pass to a million of us. And against all logic, it is turning those travellers into a burden it almost makes sense for operators not to carry. No transport system should have to shuttle almost a third of its customers around for nothing. All sense - except political sense - says curtail the passes now.

Of course, free passes should be means tested but also, in tough times like these, shouldn't there be some sort of moral element attached to our decision about taking up free travel passes? In a flush economy, there's no problem, but right now a simple assertion of entitlement isn't good enough. Shouldn't the healthy, employed and home-owning think twice before going about collecting their free travel passes? Another option would be to impose a nominal fee on journeys, say €5 on short journeys and €10 on longer ones.

I take the train home each month to Killarney, currently paying €84.50 for a weekend return ticket, a price at which you'd expect, at very least, a glass of prosecco and a foot rub from a trolley attendant. The same journey would cost around €30 in petrol. Our train system just can't compete with private cars on cost and so motoring's ecological footprint grows ever bigger. We are paying the price for excessive government spending on older generations and train travel is quickly becoming a luxury that only those with free passes can afford. And despite the obvious benefits of less traffic and a reduction in greenhouse gases, politicians aren't encouraging us to leave our cars at home.

Finland announced plans this summer to transform its existing public transport network by 2025 into one that would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use. We would do well to watch their project unfold.

The coming of the railways made us a much smaller, more accessible place but the pricing of all but those travelling free out of train travel has made it larger again, unless you can afford the ticket. It's only us unfortunates who do have to pay fares that are losing out and we are the ones forking out millions a year in taxes to subject our public transport industry to slow strangulation.

It's high time to curtail the passes before the rest of us are priced off public transport completely.

Irish Independent

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