Don’t forget rural areas

When Chris Grayling was the Secretary of State for Transport he announced a new rail saver card for 16-17 year olds. From September, this group will now have access to some of the cheapest peak time rail fares, not only to travel to and from college and school, but also for leisure use.

The DfT, now under new leadership, recently issued a press notice about the new card https://www.gov.uk/government/news/over-one-million-people-to-save-hundreds-as-new-16-17-saver-launches-cutting-cost-of-rail-travel-for-teenagers There must be questions about the claim of the number of young people that will benefit, especially in the absence of any indication that you don’t need to buy the card if you live in London and just travel to and from school or college. This is thanks to TfL arrangements that have increasingly taken many suburban rail lines into the overground network. The annual saving of an estimated £186 is good news for those that use the train, but not for all young people.

My concern has always been that this initiative does nothing for young people living in rural areas some distance away from rail lines and that cannot sue them to access school or college places. In Oxfordshire, Witney, Burford, Wantage, Farringdon, Chipping Norton, Watlington and Wheatley, along with a host of other towns and villages, don’t have direct access to a railway station. Why hasn’t the government done a similar deal with the privatised bus companies to help these young people?

Alternatively, having raised the learning leaving age to 18, why hasn’t the DfE responded to this initiative by looking to change the home to school transport regulations so the upper age limit for free travel is 18 and not 16. This would come at a price to public finances, and would be more expensive to the public purse than a deal with bus operators, but to do nothing is a slap in the face for young people living in rural areas, especially if the Department for Transport is also interested in making it more difficult for them to use their own transport to reach schools and colleges, and has done nothing to make cycling safer.

This anti-rural area bias is just the sort of issue that might tip the balance in a few rural constituencies, were there to be a general election in the autumn. My Lib Dem colleagues could well mount campaigns along the lines of ‘Tories Take Rural Family vote for Granted’ and see what happens.

I haven’t seen any response from the National Union of Students or any of the teacher associations with members in rural areas. Neither have I seem the Local Government Association take up the cause of young people in rural areas. There is little time to change the situation for September, but I hope schools and colleges, where some pupils can benefit from the new card, will take action to ensure other students don’t drop out of education because of the cost of travel to school and college on top of all the other costs of studying faced by that age group.

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Bad deal for rural students

The fact that student living in London are provided with free travel to school or college by Transport for London has always been great for them, but I felt unfair on those living in the rest of the country. Free travel is also a great help to the family budget. This benefit to London sort of mirrors the complaints of the f40 group about how schools are funded across England.

The announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport on the 2nd January 2019 of a new railcard for 16 and 17 year olds just adds insult to injury for many young people living in rural areas. The new railcard isn’t an initiative from the rail industry. The department of Transport press release is very clear that the 26-30 year olds railcard is an industry initiative backed by the government, but that the card for 16 and 17 year olds is a government initiative and, therefore, can be seen as a political move.

Indeed, the press notice points out that the new card for 16 and 17 year olds includes half price for peak and season tickets, something not generally available on other railcards.

To rub salt in the wounds, the press notice goes on to announce that the ‘railcard could cut the cost of travel by hundreds of pounds a year for young people and their parents [sic], making it cheaper to get to school, college and work’. All very well if you live near a railway line.

At Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, I asked a question about how the card would affect those not living near a railway line? For many, once the card comes into operation and the £30 purchase fee has been discounted, rail travel will be half the price of a similar bus journey, even assuming there is a bus after the rounds of cuts to such services.

The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year olds in England by the Coalition and the refusal to change the rules on home to school transport after the raising of the learning leaving age, was an unfair allocation of resources that penalised students not able to walk or cycle to school or college.

Doing something for those that have a handy railway, but ignoring everyone else in rural areas, is an own goal for the government that may well feature in campaigning for the district council elections this May in the worst affected areas.

In Oxfordshire the 16-17 year olds in Wantage could well be paying twice the price of their college buddies that live in Didcot in order to attend classes, because the County has never progressed the re-opening of Grove Station that has been an aspiration for more than 20 years.

Similarly, those 16 and 17 year old student living in Charlbury will benefit if travelling to college in Oxford, but those living in Chipping Norton or Burford won’t when travelling to Witney.

Time for a rethink Mr Grayling.