Will more investment in trains make us happier?

The Government has just announced £8bn worth of investment in the train network. Part of David Cameron's grand plan to help us find 'The Good Life'?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
With pomp and circumstance to rival anything involving Kate and Wills, the Government has proudly unveiled plans to invest £8bn in the UK’s train network. Plans include buying 2,000 new train carriages to ease over-crowding on lines that are already running, and green-lighting a modernisation of the Thameslink line, which runs north to south in London. But there’s bad news as well: some of the cost of the investment will have to be absorbed by passengers, with more fare rises likely over the next few years. So the new ‘happiness index’ David Cameron is expected to launch today might not show a nation of joyous commuters quite yet...

As most of said commuters would testify, the train infrastructure is groaning under the weight of increasing passenger numbers - which have risen by about 300m since 2000, to 1.25bn. The Government says one of the best ways to ease overcrowding is to increase the number of carriages available on lines already running – so ‘up to’ 1,200 of the 2,000 new ones it’s planning to invest in will go to Thameslink, which will see the second phase of its £5.5bn upgrade begin shortly. Another 600 carriages will go to the brand new Crossrail scheme, expected to be completing in 2018.

But it’s not all good news: passengers are unlikely to be thrilled at the prospect of fares rising by up to a third over the next four years. According to the Government, it’s to ‘safeguard’ (i.e. fund) the investment. However, that may be scant consolation for commuters, who were already facing an average fare rise of 6.2% from the beginning of the new year (with some rises as high as 14%). As Gerry Doherty, leader of the TSSA rail union put it: ‘Why is it always the poor old passenger who has to foot the bill?’

Another reason, you might argue, why it's maybe a bad time for David Cameron to be asking how happy we are. The PM has launched his much-vaunted £2m General Wellbeing survey today, arguing that the Government has an important role to play in people’s state of mind. Apparently, the Office of National Statistics will start officially measuring wellbeing shortly, as long as it can work out how first (changes in health, education, and the local environment are likely to be factored in - nothing about commuter trains though, as far as we know).

As MT editor Matthew Gwyther pointed out last week, it’s easy to poke fun at the idea – but surely the point of the Government is to improve people’s wellbeing. Still, it's undoubtedly a big ask, particularly at a time when the Government is taking money out of the economy. Critics are already saying it's likely to be more of a ‘misery monitor’. Though solving the national sardine-a-thon that is the daily commute would be a good start...

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