By Jane Dodds
Last month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a wide range of policies to tackle the rapid inflation in the country which has now surpassed 10 per cent. Among the most innovative and potentially impactful of them was his announcement of free rail journeys.
The scheme will see free rail tickets issued from September 1 to December 31 this year and is designed to help cushion the impact of the cost-of-living crisis for Spanish citizens, particularly those who rely on using public transport to get to work.
The policy will also see a 30 per cent discount apply to all other forms of public transport, including buses, metros and trams.
The scheme will be in a large part paid for by a significant windfall tax on energy companies.
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With the cost-of-living crisis surging here in the UK, we need to be looking at innovative solutions to help keep costs down. In Wales, we have seen high petrol prices forcing social care staff to leave their jobs. Our overpriced rail services and patchy bus services hardly offer an alternative as they stand.
Overall, we know that lower-income families are more reliant on public transport in Wales, we also know that lower-income families are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis. If Welsh Labour were to introduce a similar policy to that of Spain in Wales, it could dramatically help those experiencing hardship.
With winter approaching, the introduction of a free transport scheme during the next few months could help families at the very moment rising energy bills are set to bite the hardest.
Besides helping working families cope with the cost-of-living crisis, the policy would also be a huge step towards tackling climate change, reducing pollution and reducing congestion and could even encourage some people to build positive habits and make the longer-term switch to public transport.
Transport is currently one of Wales’ largest polluters and air pollution is at deadly levels in many cities, costing the Welsh NHS around £1 billion each year.
In Germany, a similar scheme to the one in Spain where all rail tickets were discounted to €9 for a limited time, resulted in a decreased level of congestion in 23 of the 26 cities examined.
The scheme has proven so popular that large sections of the public as well as think tanks, climate campaigners and academics are encouraging the German Government to continue it through the winter.
Such a scheme in Wales, or indeed any other part of the UK could play a vital role in restoring ridership to our country’s trains and buses. Between 2009 and 2019 (pre-pandemic) there was a 22 per cent decline in the number of journeys by buses in Wales and Wales continues to have the highest proportion of people travelling to work by car in the UK (estimated at approximately 75- 80 per cent).
An increase in ridership in turn could be used to argue for greater levels of investment by the Government in our public transport systems, but also could entice the private sector to invest in more routes and modernization.
But the benefits of free rail travel and discounted bus travel wouldn’t just be limited to tackling the cost-of-living crisis and fighting climate change. There is also the chance to use such a scheme to increase social mobility. By giving people access to free or discounted public transport, people would no longer face barriers to accessing key public services, getting the job they want, or chasing the opportunities they deserve.
While most of the powers to deal with the cost-of-living crisis lie in Westminster, the introduction of free and discounted transport is something that Welsh Labour could implement through the Senedd. Both myself and the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be continuing to campaign to push the Welsh Labour Government to take the radical action that is needed to tackle this crisis head-on.