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Encouraging a modal shift to rail is vital to meeting Net-Zero targets


The Rail Delivery Group say we must focus attention on incentivising people to choose rail
| Credit: Getty Images

If the Government wants people to make greener travel choices it must make use of the levers it has at its disposal to motivate public action.

As lockdown restrictions have eased, we’ve seen the corresponding resumption of journeys across all modes of transport around the country. Whether commuting, going on holiday or finally seeing loved ones, movement across the UK is a great sign of both normality and economic recovery. However, the way people return to travelling could have significant environmental costs.

The government’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution rightly identifies the need to accelerate a transition to more sustainable forms of transport. As a low-carbon alternative to private vehicle use and domestic aviation, rail is well placed to help society contribute to that goal by acting as the preferred option for short, medium and long-distance travel within the UK and beyond. Across the country, rail carries 10% of passenger miles yet it only accounts for 1.4% of transport emissions. Despite this, the government is currently analysing submissions to its Consultation on Aviation Tax Reform which proposes reducing Air Passenger Duty (APD) on domestic flights.

Aviation has an important role to play in connecting places where other types of transport aren’t a realistic option. However, simply cutting APD would make flying the more attractive option for many people on routes where there is a greener alternative. Indeed, the government’s own interim Union Connectivity Review said this should only be done where travelling by train is not ‘realistic’.

Our research estimates that a 50% cut in APD could result in 222,000 fewer train journeys as people shift to planes – equivalent to over 1,000 extra flights. These extra plane journeys equate to an estimated 27,000 additional tonnes of carbon emissions.

Train companies propose that any journey that can be made by rail in under 5 hours should be regarded as realistic. Therefore, there should be no cuts to APD on routes equivalent to those journeys.

Levelling the playing field on transport taxes more widely would make it more likely that the greenest mode is the most attractive price option. The current tax system effectively penalises the rail industry for replacing diesel trains with cleaner electric trains, with taxes on electricity now making up almost 40% of the total cost of powering electric trains, up from 12% a decade ago. Compared to other modes of transport, air passengers pay a much smaller proportion of the climate costs associated with their travel.

It’s vital that government uses the levers of taxes and fares to encourage people to make greener travel choices wherever possible

In order to attract people to rail and encourage them to choose the train over other modes of transport, we must look again at the products and fares that the industry can offer. The current regulations that underpin the system make choosing a ticket too complex and the fares on offer too restrictive which often disincentivises people from choosing rail.

The William’s Shapps ‘Plan for Rail’ unveiled a raft of reforms to deliver change in the rail industry including changes to fares and retailing. Current plans are a step in the right direction, but to really maximise the benefits and make it easier for people to get good value fares and choose to go green requires government to go further to truly transform the underpinnings of the fares system. In order to make rail an even more attractive choice than air, passengers need to have a wider range of walk up prices and have a greater chance of getting a seat, with demand spread more evenly throughout the day. A new fares system enabling better products would make this achievable rather than aspirational.

A wholesale reduction on domestic APD runs the risk of shifting passengers from rail to air even if rail is a realistic alternative. It’s vital that government uses the levers of taxes and fares to encourage people to make greener travel choices wherever possible.

Simply put, choosing rail is one easy way people can do their bit to help us reach net zero and government policy should encourage this wherever possible.

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