A fare start?

24 June 2021
A fare start?

A blog by Norman Baker of Campaign for Better Transport.

We’ve all been waiting on the platform for ages – years in fact – for the arrival of flexible rail season tickets. They finally turned up this week, much delayed but at least not cancelled.

Campaign for Better Transport has long pushed for this innovation so it may sound churlish not to exude enthusiasm but while the fact that this first key step has been taken is indeed welcome, the unvarnished truth is this: there needs to be a root and branch overhaul of fares and ticketing arrangements on our railway, but we have been given a twig and leaf one instead.

The present structure is based on the 1995 Ticketing Settlement Agreement, itself largely based on a British Rail system before that. Since 1995, franchise agreements have added layer after layer of complexity and restriction, so that we now have over 55 million individual fares available, almost one per person in the country.

This creaky structure is a real disincentive to train travel. First, finding the best fare for any particular journey can be like trying to solve a clue in a cryptic crossword puzzle – you have to understand the code and have the right mindset to work out the answer. A 2016 survey of potential passengers revealed that 35 per cent, one in three, said they were put off using trains because of the complexity of fares.

Second, the inflexibility of the structure means the industry has not been able to respond to changing travel patterns. The system assumes that people are commuting to work Monday to Friday, with morning and evening peaks in travelling, and that Sundays are days when travel is very light.

This pattern may well still have been in place in 1995 but it was fast changing even before COVID struck last year. Working from home was given a fillip back in 2012 when I was transport minister and when London hosted the Olympics and travel for work was discouraged for the duration. In 2013 I announced a pilot trial of flexi tickets, but that got quietly lost after I moved from the Department for Transport to the Home Office.

So what of this week’s announcement? The key test is whether what has been put in place will encourage more people back onto the train, or to try it in the first place. Sadly, except at the margins, it is unlikely it will.

The Government measures the new scheme, which is more accurately a carnet of eight tickets to be used within 28 days rather than a flexi season (so no bonus weekend trips as you get with season tickets) against two peak day returns per week. This measurement indeed shows useful savings on many routes (though on some routes the savings are quite small). But the reality is very few people buy two peak day returns each week. They will either buy a weekly season, maybe travelling three days one week and one day the next, or add in some bonus weekend trips. Or they will travel off peak and so save loads of money. Or they will buy a peak one way single and get a cheap advance ticket back.

The fairer comparison is with existing season tickets and here the savings can be rather less impressive. Eastbourne to London, for example, costs £5,168 for an annual season ticket while travelling two days a week with the new carnet arrangement will cost £4,763 over the year. Logically, it should cost two-fifths, or 40 per cent of the cost of the annual ticket, which would come to £2,067.

At Campaign for Better Transport, we will continue to press for the root and branch reform to fares and ticketing that is so necessary if we are to make the most of our railway.

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