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Free for All

11th February 1955
Page 65
Page 65, 11th February 1955 — Free for All
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

VHILST respecting the good intentions of the corporation of Birmingham, one may doubt their wisdom in continuing to press for permission to vide free travel for certain groups of people, notably old-age pensioners. When Mr. G. V. Prescott, a payer, of Edgbaston, challenged the legality of the -travel scheme some time ago, he was given liberty he High Court to apply for an injunction. The Court kppeal subsequently dismissed with costs the appeal the corporation, who are now promoting a Bill to ire Parliamentary authority for what the courts deny n.

Ir. Prescott's main objection was that free travel for age pensioners involved the corporation's transport ertaking in a loss, which had to be met by the rateers. Had this not been so, he would probably not e taken his case. The British Transport Commission e attacked the Bill for different reasons. They ntain, among other things, that it would create a edent. Every buS operator in the country might be ged to give free or cheap travel for favoured groups. ; cost would have to be met by other passengers, .:pt when an operator was in the same position as ningham Corporation and able to get a subsidy from rates.

'he Commission are right. Concessions may be made small groups, such as the blind or the disabled, and financial loss would not be serious. For larger ions the concessions must be shown to give some antage to the operator. Otherwise they have the ct of a compulsory subsidy on other sections of community. Cheap fares for children, and for the eral public during the slack hours of the day, and ices such as the cheap evening return tickets into teal London from the suburbs, are calculated to .case traffic or to balance the flow, and thus increase :nue or profit rather than diminish it.

Hardly Just

bntinual rises in fares press with particular hardship n the person who has to travel fairly long distances to from his work. It is hardly just that he should be Jed out to pay even more to provide concessions for am n groups of people whose welfare should properly he concern of the State as a whole.

drmingham Corporation's scheme is similar in kind he ideal in the minds of some of the supporters of .onalization, who urge that all transport should be : of charge, like the water in a municipal drinking ntain, and that the cost should be met entirely by the iernment or by local authorities. The proposal is ie most frequently on behalf of merchants and traders he remote parts of Scotland, who find themselves ing high rates for the carriage of their goods, but it is at stretched to include the transport of passengers. he idea of unlimited free rides appeals to most of us, some of the consequences might not be unhelpful. ny motorists would cease to run their ears at their 1 expense when public transport was there for 'ling. The reduction in the number of cars would !ve congestion and perhaps solve the parking blem. Abolition of fares means the abolition of ets, punches and ticket inspectors, and a reduction in astaff.

At first there would be a feeling of exhilaration that a trip to market or to the other end of the country would be as free and easy as turning on a tap. The snags would show themselves in time. When the economic basis is removed, nothing really satisfactory can be found to take its place, as most people realized after they had pondered the suggestion of the recent court of inquiry into railway wages thitt the important end was the payment of a fair wage and the means could be left to look after themselves.

Broadly speaking, passenger services are arranged to meet demand, and they are less frequent where the demand is low. If no charge were made, it would scarcely matter whether a bus ran full or almost empty. There would be no inducement to take buses off in a slack period or to provide extra buses at busy times. The tendency would be to run vehicles to suit the producers of transport rather than the public.

Nevertheless, the number of passenger journeys would increase considerably. Travel, after all, is not properly to be compared with turning on a tap. It can be a pleasure, and the plans of the B.T.C. look like making it a luxury. There is something in Stevenson's observation that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. Free travel could have no other result than to turn us into a nation of hitch-hikels.

Forgotten Legs

Many a car owner has almost forgotten the use of his legs, and many more people would follow his example. They would insist on riding everywhere, even if it were only to the next stop, 100 yd. down the road. They would spend their leisure on trains and buses. They would live even farther away from their place of work than they do now. They would flock into or out of town on the least excuse, and never take a holiday within 250 miles of their homes.

It is probable that the old-age pensioner would behave very much like the rest of us if he were given the blessing of free travel. He often has little money—that is the most powerful reason for giving him the concession— and a lot of leisure. He might come to find his chief source of amusement in travelling on buses.

Whether this happened during the Birmingham experi ment it is hard to say. The scheme adopted in January, 1953, provided free travel for old-age pensioners between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day except Saturdays. The number of old people in Birmingham who qualified was 70,000, and 40,000 of them took advantage of it. The corporation agreed at the launching of the scheme to pay the transport committee £90,000 a year from the rate fund. It is likely that much more than this would have been received had the old people been required to pay for their journeys, although it cannot be known whether extra staff and extra vehicles were used.

Even assuming that the estimate of £90,000 was correct, the total falling on public funds would be many times that figure if Birmingham Corporation were able to get their way and, as the B.T.C. suggest, operators all over the country were virtually obliged to follow suit. The issue might just as well be met squarely by increasing the pension rates. A reasonable alternative would be to limit such a fare concession to cases of proved hardship.


People: G. V. Prescott
Locations: Birmingham, London

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