January 1 is the day to claim that the New Year will show us who we really are. We made that case yesterday in relation to Brexit. Perhaps we should simply have waited for 24 hours. For there’s a good case for arguing that January 2, each year, provides real evidence of the kind of country Britain is. And that it does so far more convicingly than anything imagination can conjure up the day before.
The second day of each New Year is Railways Day, on which annual fare rises are announced – 3.1 per cent for this coming year, a further above-inflation increase. In the absence of other political news – not an unusual feature of the late Christmas season – it dominates media coverage. Commuters, unions, and campaigners pile in. The Transport Secretary is despatched to the studios to have buckets of ordure emptied ritually over his head.
If that person is Chris Grayling, to whom journalists now reflexively apply the death-watch terms “beleaguered” and “embattled”, he is wise to have an announcement tucked up his sleeve. It won’t save him from the scragging but it will divert some attention. And the Transport Secretary is an experienced enough hand to have prepared exactly that. So, lo, he has revealed today that a new railcard extending child fares to 16 and 17-year-olds will be available ahead of the new academic year in September.
But there is more to Railways Day than an annual outing for the Transport Secretary – or the coming fare rises for commuters. Age, class, region, the way we live now and are governed: January 2 has something to say about all of them.
First, age. Home ownership is the classic demonstration of the updated version of Disraeli’s two nations: the young and the old. Rail is another. The country divides into those who remember the old, fully-nationalised railways and the modern, part-nationalised ones. (Never forget: Network Rail, which runs the track, is a state body.) Older voters are prone to that affliction of the ageing, nostaglia. But its consoling mists don’t always conceal the bleakness of the view back – to under-investment, strikes, delays and lower passenger numbers. They remember the days of full nationalisation, and are less likely to vote for the man who advocates it, Jeremy Corbyn, whatever polls about the popularity of state ownership may tell you. Younger voters have shorter memories and trend Left.
Second, class – or at least income. Railway use is skewed towards richer voters. The highest-earning 20 per cent of voters take around four times as many train journeys each year as those in the bottom 40 per cent, and twice as many as those in the middle. Corbyn’s targeting of these offer yet more evidence of his paradoxical approach to the electorate, whereby pledges are pushed at plusher voters rather than needier ones. His 2017 manifesto somehow promised to scrap tuition fees but not to lift the benefits cap. As our columnist James Frayne never tires of pointing out, the Just-About-Managings – remember them? – tend to drive to work, not take the train.
Third, region. Rail use is highest in the South-East. Many of those who bring you the Today programme or Newsnight will have made their way to their BBC place of work by train, and good luck to them. Daily Telegraph reading-commuters clutch their season tickets. Senior Guardian editors will make their way to work by rail and tube. Our own readership is concentrated in the greater south-east. No wonder we all find ourselves writing about the railways. If you want a sense of how commuters or voters further north feel about this bias to the capital, have a look at the Yorkshire Post, and its complaint about delays to the phrasing-out of “Northern’s fleet of antiquated Pacers – buses converted into makeshift trains in the 1980s”.
Which brings us back to the part-nationalised system, the role of Network Rail, this summer’s timetabling chaos, and the leaked “yours cynically” e-mail from the Transport Department about the loss of a northern service.
A variant to Railways Day this year has been the activity of the centre-right orientated think tanks, many of which are out and about today making the case for our part-private system. The Centre for Policy Studies (which got in early), the Taxpayers Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs – all are making necessary points: that the change has brought more journeys, higher passenger satisfaction and progressive funding, in the sense that consumers rather than taxpayers must bear part of the bill.
They, we and others might also unite in a late New Year’s resolution: to make each annual Railways Day a No HS2 Day. “How would you feel if we just dropped HS2 and spent the money on local transport links in the Midlands and the north?’’ the ever-alert Michael Gove asked Conservative MPs last year. He will know that of the £6.4 billion given to – excluding loans from Network Rail – almost a third was consumed by the high-speed project.
Five years ago, the ConservativeHome Manifesto proposed junking the project and transferring resources to a Northern Infrastructure Fund. That would help ease income and regional disparities – not to mention curb the inevitable overspending on the project, £20 billion and counting the last time we looked.