In Praise of: The Young Person’s Railcard

This week will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Beeching’s infamous report, The Restructuring of British Railways which outlined plans to cut more than 5,000 miles of rail track and more than 2,000 stations.beeching2

It was a radical solution to the perceived problem of the time – how to provide an efficient and cost-effective railway in a era of ever-growing car use.

Yet 50 years later, we see the humble train reemerging as a popular mode of transport.  The recent RAC Foundation survey shows that UK train travel has increased dramatically between 1995-2007.  That increase is as a result of new train travellers coming onto the rails rather than more journeys from existing users:

“The main conclusion concerning the increase in National Rail travel
between 1995/7 and 2005/7 is that the growth in passenger kilometres
of 50% per person is almost entirely explained by an expanding market
base: the growth is due to higher proportions of the population travelling
by train, rather than to existing users making more frequent or longer rail
trips.”

The report points to the shift by business travellers away from company cars (which became a tax burden for employees in the late nineties) to train travel as being the significant trend.

However I want to highlight what I consider to be an unsung hero of this dramatic u-turn in Britain’s travelling habits – the Young Person’s Railcard (now branded the 16-25 Railcard).

The card was introduced in 1974 (11 years after Beeching) as the Student Railcard, and later relaunched as the Young Person’s Railcard in 1982.  Though it started by offering a range of discounts, the card switched to a simple ‘1/3rd off’ arrangement in 1987 and that basic offer still stands today.1625RC[1]_1

The effect of the card has been to ensure that millions of young people have an introduction to reasonably priced rail travel from an early age.  Some will use it once (the discounts are often big enough to justify the cost of the card on the first journey), some will use it every weekend, and just a few will get hooked on train travel forever.

Whatever happens they have at least been drawn onto the railways at a crucial time of their lives.  The card kicks in a year before you can get a driving licence and can stay with you all the way through until you are starting families (and possibly upgrading to the family railcard (or a Ford Focus)).

Students were the original benefactors and for those going away to university it was, and (presumably in the era of fees) still is, regarded as  essential.  The demand for the cards is great enough amongst students to make it a common incentive offered by banks to encourage them to open bank accounts.

I had never traveled regularly on the railway until I opened an account with RBS and got my first Young Person’s Railcard in 1998.  Though I had to leave the railcard behind quite a few years ago, after relying on it for so many years, I am now a huge enthusiast of train travel.
The RAC Foundation report does not highlight this ‘Railcard Converts’ phenomenon, but I can’t be alone.  As the students of the 80s, 90s and 00’s grew up, I can not believe that the Young Person’s Railcard does not have something to do with the surge in passenger numbers we now see on the railways.
The Young Person’s Railcard is the very best sort of environmental measure.  Offering real in-your-pocket incentives for young people to take a sustainable form of transport setting up good habits that can last for a lifetime.  It does not have the word ‘green’ anywhere near it but it could be one of the most effective environmental transport measures ever implemented.  Its pioneers should be congratulated and its example copied.

llantwit_stationAs it happens, my home town, Llantwit Major lost its station to the Beeching cuts.  However the station and the branch line from Cardiff to Bridgend via Barry were reopened in 2005 and have prospered ever since, giving the lie to Beeching’s analysis that the branch line was uneconomic.

2005 was also the last year of my Young Person’s Railcard and by virtue of 7 years of practical, cost-effective and joyful travel on the rails my personal conclusion that Beeching was mistaken had already been reached.

Instead of mourning the loss of those branch lines closed forever, let’s use the Beeching anniversary to celebrate something altogether more positive for the railways and for the environment – the Young Person’s Railcard.

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