Anyone searching on the Govia Thameslink website for information about student rail fares will soon discover an anomaly: the Cambridge Student Connect offer. This is a unique 50 per cent discount fare available to 16-18 year-olds in education or training, within Cambridgeshire. It means that access to these critical years of education and training is that bit more affordable. Everywhere else in the country, the standard student rail discount is 33 per cent. Why is there an exceptional offer in Cambridgeshire? Can the Train Operating Company afford it?
Susan van de Ven, County Councillor, Meldreth and Chair of the Meldreth, Shepreth and Foxton Community Rail Partnership, explains.
The fare originated in 2010 in Meldreth, ten miles south of Cambridge. The railway came to the village in the 1860s for the purpose of transporting apples and plums to Covent Garden. Of particular notoriety was the Cambridge Gage, or greengage – the sweetest of all plums. Today there are plenty of fruit trees dotted around, though not so many commercial orchards. The legacy of the rail line however, remains central to the community, providing its premier public service. People have settled and built their lives around it. Commuting to London King’s Cross is a draw, but so is getting around locally: to Cambridge, Royston and the nearby villages of Shepreth and Foxton. Over the years, bus services have dwindled to one commuter per day, while footfall at Meldreth Station has grown steadily at ten per cent annually, now serving a quarter of a million people every year. Since the 50 per cent student discount was introduced, a modal shift to rail has been tracked and evidently contributed to that growth.
Like many good inventions, this one happened somewhat by accident. In 2009, the Train Operating Company (TOC) at the time, First Capital Connect, announced sweeping adverse changes to services at Meldreth. Free parking was to be replaced with a prohibitive charge; the booking office was to close on Saturdays; and the student fare to Cambridge – the destination for all 16-18 year olds in education or training - was to be hiked off-the-charts. First Capital Connect explained that it was ‘aligning’ its business operations. To many people, this meant that travel by train was going to become unaffordable.
At the time there was no relationship at all with the train operating company, except for the much-loved station master who made tea and rang people at home to warn them of late-running trains – but he was regarded as a local man, not a company man.
A ferocious campaign took off and the non-existent relationship with the train operating company was replaced with a new and adversarial one. Petitions, packed public meetings and TV cameras saw the booking office service saved. Student fares and parking charges were the next line of battle.
Out of the fray, a few key constructive relationships were established. One First Capital Connect officer in particular, Larry Heyman, took the lead on student fares: ‘Shall we meet up to discuss?’ he asked.
As Cambridgeshire County Councillor for the village, this was an opportunity for me to bring in County Education Transport, and our meeting was held together with council officers at Shire Hall in Cambridge. Larry proposed a 50 per cent discount, as opposed to the standard 33 per cent off the adult fare. The premise was that students should be entitled to a greater proportional discount. For Meldreth students, this would reduce the annual cost by about £140 – a significant saving. But the offer went further: Larry suggested this be a Cambridgeshire-wide offer, and that was how it was set up. Very quickly, the other main Train Operating Company in the county, running the Liverpool Street-Cambridge line, offered to match the discount, which became the county standard.
The fare came into force in September 2010, as the bite of national recession began to hit local authorities hard. The council had long provided a discretionary subsidy for bus travel but the rail discount now undercut the cost of bus travel, even with county subsidy. Students opting for rail, with its half-hourly peak or hourly off-peak service, paid significantly less that those opting for the once-per-day bus run. By not tapping into council bus subsidy, every student who opted for rail saved the local authority £110. A couple of years in, using data from student rail pass lists and sixth form registrations, it was possible to see that for Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, the entire intake from Meldreth had opted for the rail pass over the subsidised bus pass. While this was not helpful to bus ridership, it set out certain clear parameters.
In 2014 the First Capital Connect franchise ended. Out of that initial confrontational contact, other good things had been achieved too, including hugely reduced parking charges, a thriving Community Rail Partnership (CRP), and outstanding communication with the train operating company and rail industry generally. Good personal relationships meant that new ideas could be explored. The community had a strong voice in the run-up to the change of franchise, with a long and clear list of objectives for the new franchise holder. All the bidders approached the CRP to discuss priorities going forward – and retaining the 50 per cent student discount was prominent on the list.
The winning Train Operating Company was Govia Thameslink Railway. But the terms for this franchise were distinctly different from the preceding era: a ‘management contract’ with the Department for Transport meant that the TOC had less flexibility in running unique schemes and initiatives; everything had to be approved by the Department for Transport as ‘revenue generating.’ Whether a scheme was commendable for the public good was measure by strict criteria around profitability. After all, this was public money.
While the 50 per cent discount was carried over to the start of the new Govia Thameslink Railway franchise, for continuation into each successive year it needed to prove its revenue generating credentials. This was achieved, and for two successive years now the scheme has been reapproved.
Meanwhile, the Cambridgeshire County Council has become so severely starved – its revenue support grant from central government is being wound down to zero – that this year, for the first time, it is unable to offer discretionary subsidy for post-16 transport, which has always taken the form of bus subsidies. Those young people living in areas of Cambridgeshire with a rail line have access to a unique discount, while those with only a bus link face a higher fare that reflects the removal of council subsidy. This introduces many questions for the future, including the means to create shuttle bus links to rail stations.
At the same time, two years since the Department for Transport approved the Cambridge Connect 50 per cent discount, the question must be asked: can the discount be rolled out as a national standard? While ticking the box for DfT revenue generation, it certainly ticks the box for young people in need of more affordable transport.