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Transport / Mass transit

So what went wrong with Philip Hammond’s proposed millennial railcard?

Millennials just can’t catch a break, can they? Bad enough they have to deal with insecure work, over-priced housing and a future in which Sussex look like Mad Max: Fury Road; now, they won’t even get their railcards.

The government’s plans for cut-price rail cards for those aged 26 to 30, announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond in last autumn’s Budget, had already run into problems. March’s pilot schem saw the website where you signed up for a cards almost instantly fall over, unable to cope with the level of demand. Many of the more pro-active millennials, who spent an hour or more on the phone in an attempt to get their rail cards, were eventually told that there weren’t actually enough to go around.

Now, it turns out, this is as good as it’s going to get. The Spectator’s Katy Balls, wearing her other hat over at The I, revealed yesterday that the scheme has been delayed, because of a row over who’s going to pay for it. How long this delay will last it’s impossible to say – but I don’t think we can rule out “indefinitely”.

It’s tempting to view this as the latest example of the society-wide phenomenon in which the younger generation are getting repeatedly, and painfully, stuffed by their elders. It’s hard to imagine a promise of goodies for the over 50s being quietly abandoned in this way. Quite the opposite: subsidies to that generation are treated as inviolable, even when they look suspiciously like a waste of public money. Subsidies to the young, by contrast, are often framed instead as a somehow illegitimate attempt to buy votes: witness the row over Labour’s proposals for free bus travel for the under 25s.

But while intergenerational inequality may be a factor, the proximate cause of the delay is more prosaic. As Balls quotes a Treasury source as saying: “No-one wants to pay for it.”

Think about how a cut price rail card actually works. The rail network is privately run, so the card means that private companies will be required to accept lower fares from some passengers – even if they squeeze out those who are paying full-whack. To ensure the train companies aren’t disadvantaged (you may be fine with that; contract law isn’t), the government has to plug the gap.


The problem is, we don’t actually know how big that gap will be. Changing fares will change behaviour: you’d expect more young people to take subsidised trains, and perhaps more older people to think the train is suddenly a bit over crowded and to avoid it. The Treasury will have modelled this, when working out costs – but the fact demand was high enough to immediately crash that website suggests it may not have modelled it very well.

So: rolling out the cheap rail cards will require some bit of the government to accept responsibility for paying a bill without knowing how big that bill will be. Departments have budgets and targets to hit, so nobody is keen to do that.

And so, while that turf war continues, those lucky millennials will be denied one of the few things this government has ever promised to do for them.

There’s another way of reading this story – that it’s just the latest in a whole series of policies this government has announced to get good headlines, without giving the slightest thought to how it might actually work.

In that bucket you can also put Universal Credit, and starter homes, and the expansion of Right to Buy to housing associations, and even, if you’re so minded, Brexit. All of these things sound great, to a certain segment of voters, in a 300 word news story – but they all fall apart when you actually have to deliver them.

It’s tempting to view this news as yet another example of the British government screwing things up for millennials. But the real story, I suspect, is of the British government screwing up for itself. It’s learning slowly and painfully that, try as you might, you can’t govern by headline.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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