So, we are going to have a new rail pass, giving half price travel to 16-17 year olds. It has been universally welcomed. I am not so sure. Actually I think it is a bad idea.
In the first place, money doesn’t grow on trees. The cost of carrying XXXX young people on an off-peak train may be marginal, but it is real. Second, when politicians do dish out benefits (paid for by other people’s money, much of it the beneficiaries' own), they hang around for ever: there is never a good time to scrap a state benefit. And once you have created the benefit, you have also created a vested interest group that lobbies against its repeal. So the list of vote-seeking benefit schemes just gets bigger and bigger.
That’s why, on the rail network, we have literally dozens of different railcards and discounts. There’s the 16-25 Railcard, the 26-30 Railcard, Club 50, Family & Friends Railcard, Group Save Discount, HM Forces Railcard, Senior Railcard, Two Together Railcard, Under 25 Advance Fares, the South Yorkshire Student Pass, Season Loyalty Discount plus regional railcards in Cumbria, the Dales, Devon & Cornwall, Esk Valley, Wales, the South East, Pembrokeshire, Yorkshire, Scotland—and a lot more beside. (Not to mention all those free bus passes.)
It makes you wonder who is actually paying for their rail travel. But you know who it is: all those commuters and working families struggling to make ends meet despite higher and higher peak-time fares. It’s a massive—and disguised—transfer of wealth from workers to everyone else. Everyone, including young kids from rich families and older people, who on average are wealthier than the rest of the population anyway. I don’t mind wealth transfers: I prefer to live in a country where people who need support get it. But I can’t see why poor bus users and car users should subsidise rich pensioners for their public transport travel.
Sure, railcards have a benefit in that they discourage people who can travel at any time of day from clogging up the trains and buses at peak hours. But off-peak fares at real term discounts would do that, and would be a lot simpler and fairer than the subsidy to particular groups that politicians think deservice (or are seeking votes from). Let the market take the strain.