The case for concessionary travel
There is a quiet revolution underway in urban mobility. In 2022, a survey by Expressway revealed that 72% of people in Dublin aged 19 – 23 were using public transport more than three years ago, a significant increase in the number of young adults choosing public transport over private cars. Meanwhile, a number of European countries are introducing fare-free transportation, which paints a picture of automobile-free city centres in the near future.
All of which begs the question: shouldn’t the UK follow in these footsteps and consider concessionary travel for young people? Such an initiative would not only offer more equitable access to mobility services, but also serve as a catalyst for change, resulting in a generation for whom public transport is the preferred mode of transportation.
Providing rail travel at “no cost” to young passengers under the age of 18 is a proposition that would ultimately create significant value for taxpayers and increase the UK’s overall GDP, by making access to education and future employment easy and cost effective, as school leavers venture into adulthood.
Rail travel has been steadily recovering its human and freight customers lost during the pandemic, with some way still to go before returning to pre-COVID levels. Public transport systems that rely heavily on fares for funding experienced considerable strain during the pandemic, and the widespread introduction of hybrid working has left many global networks still struggling.
However, as far as the UK is concerned, there is enough evidence to suggest that rail remains the most popular mode of public transport for commuters. According to transport statistics shared by GOV.UK, over half (51%) of all trips by rail in 2021 were for either commuting or business purposes. Out of 5.1 billion passenger journeys made on public transport vehicles, while 1.7 billion journeys made by rail.
People continue to return to rail, but in insufficient numbers to allow it to thrive, and not in the travel patterns of five days a week commuting on which much planning was based. Hence this is only part of a bigger picture. For rail travel to thrive, we must create and nurture a whole new generation for whom rail is their default choice – not just for economic and environmental reasons, but also because they genuinely prefer to travel by rail.
Finding ‘Generation Rail’
According to Statista, over 15 million people in the UK are under the age of 18 (22% of the population). Now imagine an emerging generation of young customers for whom trains are their default choice for mode of transportation.
Concessionary rail travel for under 18-year-olds would plant the seeds for such a future. As students become increasingly independent as they grow older, the availability of affordable travel options will shape their public transport preferences. The result? A young population that craves mobility and views trains not only as the most accessible and cost-efficient choice of transport, but also the most eco-friendly.
As we progressively become a more eco-conscious society the popularity of rail travel is only set to grow, given that part of its allure lies in its sustainability. It’s worth drawing attention to these environmental benefits, especially when compared to road transport. The latter accounts for 15% of total CO2 emissions, whereas rail travel only accounts for 1%. In fact, trains emit 66-75% less carbon emissions than other forms of transportation, making rail travel the most environmentally friendly option, aside from cycling and walking.
A concessionary travel initiative would therefore encourage young people to embrace an eco-conscious path, helping a new generation move towards a way of living that is environmentally responsible.
Opening new routes to education and employment
Concessionary rail travel is not just about getting from point A to B – it’s about bridging the gap to opportunity. For under-18s, an initiative like this would open more opportunities not just for education, but future employment as well.
Let’s take for example a young student from a rural area, for whom pursuing higher education or job prospects in a city may seem like an unfeasible option for both financial and geographical reasons. These obstacles are more easily overcome with affordable access to the rail network, allowing students to pursue a wider variety of academic and career opportunities without needing to worry about the burden of exorbitant commuting costs.
The urban-rural divide is shrinking, and a concessionary travel initiative has a pivotal role to play in this transformation. It empowers students to take control of their progression path, regardless of where they live.
Mobility as a Service: making a connection
Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has already been adopted in some parts of Europe and is gaining ground as a concept in the UK, with potential to integrate seamlessly with concessionary rail travel.
MaaS provides an integrated, user-friendly transportation ecosystem that prioritises convenience and accessibility. With the right MaaS platform, a young person can use a single app not only to make the most of concessionary rail travel, but also swiftly connect to other modes of transportation, such as buses and trams.
Above everything else, MaaS has the capability of making travel an attractive user experience on a par with the streamlined and highly integrated services offered by the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Spotify. For the digitally-literate younger generation, this is a selling point too good to ignore. By providing real-time information and trip planning all in one place, MaaS would provide an added compelling reason for students to take full advantage of their concessionary travel.
The fiscal impact of concessionary travel
But how could we afford to introduce concessionary travel for under-18s? The best way to justify the concept is to approach public transport the same way we do with public health, libraries, and schools— all services that we pay into.
Currently, reduced rate rail travel in the UK for all under the age of 25 is approximately 10% of the £8.6bn of passenger fares revenue generated in FY2022/23. The vast majority of these transactions take place online and, overall, the number of transactions is growing every year.
Concessionary travel wouldn’t be just a boon for students – it would also benefit the taxpayers who fund it. By opening opportunities for young individuals, concessionary rail travel has the potential to contribute to increased productivity and, in the long run, higher tax revenues. It would be an investment in the future workforce that could pay dividends for years to come.
A well-educated, motivated, and skilled workforce is the bedrock of a strong economy. When students can access the education and training they need without being hindered by travel costs, they are more likely to contribute to the workforce effectively.
Ultimately, the economic benefits of investing in young people’s education and free mobility may well outweigh the costs. When viewed through that lens, it becomes clear that taxpayers would not just be funding a concessionary travel scheme; they would be investing in the future prosperity of the country.
There is enough evidence to suggest that concessionary rail travel for under-18 students could be a transformative force of change in UK public transport, but challenges lie ahead.
Ensuring that such an initiative remains financially sustainable, addressing the need for increased capacity and integration with yet to be introduced MaaS platforms are just a few of the hurdles to overcome. The initiative’s success relies on collaboration between numerous stakeholders, such as policymakers, public transport authorities, transport operators, mobility service providers and technology innovators, while also securing buy-in from the British public.
A good place to start is to address the issue at party conferences, which provide a valuable platform for setting policies and agendas. The moment the highest decision-making bodies are convinced of the initiative’s benefits, the easier it will be to meet the remaining challenges head-on.
Mapping the course ahead
Introducing concessionary rail travel for under-18 students in the UK has every potential to shape the future. It would foster a generation of environmentally conscious rail enthusiasts, empower students to access opportunities in education and employment, and create tangible value for taxpayers. It’s a path to a more sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive tomorrow—one where rail is the default choice for the next generation of professionals and business leaders.
‘Generation Rail’ will play a big part in helping to grow the UK economy. It would be the first generation to encourage on-demand rail services and multi-modal service compatibility to further encourage public transport usage. The concessionary travel scheme would need to be carefully implemented to ensure that the inclusivity of the railways is neither compromised, nor further complicated. It will need to be supported by the collection of real time movement data for young people to ensure capacity can meet demand and that the system minimises any revenue fraud from misuse.
But more importantly, ‘Generation Rail’ will produce a significant environmental benefit for the whole population, ease the stresses created by inner city congestion and help to convince future generations of the benefits of travel by train. Now’s the time for the industry to act and use the additional economic, social and environmental pressures to persuade future governments that concessionary rail travel needs to be at top of the agenda.
Martin Howell is Director – Transport Markets, UK & Ireland, Worldline06.10.2023