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The UK’s Student Rail Issue

A train pulled into Cardiff station.
'Food or family?' A choice made by students under pressure from high rail prices. Source: Jeremy Segrott, Flickr

By Katherine Wheeler | Comment Editor

I never thought I’d become a sightseer at Uni. In fact, I was so in love with my Uni city that I didn’t consider travel outside of Cardiff until just last month. With borders open again after COVID, I often found myself scrolling through ticket prices looking for nice days out. The only problem was, I barely had enough money to go home. One weekend at home cost my entire weekly spend and a quarter of my food budget, even with a Railcard.

For many students the financial hit is a lot worse, those with homes in the furthest North of England, Scotland or even Northern Ireland are paying their whole budget and more. What does this look like though?

UCAS’ budget calculator calculates that students spend, on average, £91 per week excluding accommodation costs and holidays. Whilst budgets like that are feasible for some students, they will seem impossible for others. For a student buying a return ticket to Brighton, for example, the cheapest available train (with a Railcard applied) is £54.95. Take off the average weekly food shop at £23.50 and you’re left with £12.55- and that’s in an ideal world.

When the advice given to stressed students is often ‘go home’, how is this manageable? Do students really need to make the decision between food and getting to see their families? ‘There are lots of cheap tickets available,’ said a spokesman for Network Rail in 2019, ‘our range of railcards offer a third off most fares’. Whilst this is true in most cases, prices are still a major barrier to most and travelling home every weekend is simply not feasible.

One hope for students in England is HS2, the government’s controversial plan for a high speed rail network connecting the North of England to the South. The project’s initial aims were to reduce travel times between destinations and to reduce rail cost. It is yet to be seen whether the project will deliver but reports estimate the network will come at billions overbudget. With no HS2 equivalent in Wales and only £345m allocated to rail enhancement projects, it looks as if the state of rail fares will remain the same for years to come. It’s also a given that prices will rise with inflation.

Without trains, students are left with very few options to travel home. For a long haul journeys, it would be impossible to walk, cycle or take local bus services. Students with a car still face the expenses of petrol, insurance and general upkeep, not to mention the trouble of parking on residential streets. Another option might be to take a coach. A return ticket with the National Express comes in at around £15. The time it takes to get to where you want to go, however, is a huge drawback. Coach journeys to Nottingham come in at just under a staggering nine hours.

As bleak as it is to say, it looks like solutions for students just aren’t being offered. The poorest students are choosing between food and travel with no subsidy and a Railcard that saves not enough. How much responsibility lies with the rail companies? Is it an idea for the future for the University to offer a travel reimbursement scheme?

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