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Groundhog Day for rail commuters

Paul Tuohy's picture
woman at train ticket  machine

As the old proverb goes, only three things in life are certain: birth, death, and change, but in the case of the annual RPI rail fare rise, perhaps ‘no change’ would be more appropriate. It might have come on a different day – 1 March instead of 1 January this year – but it’s the same old story for rail commuters as regulated fares went up by 3.8 per cent today. 

The Government delayed this year’s fare rise with much fanfare ‘to allow passengers more time to buy cheaper flexible and season tickets at the existing rate’ said its press release, but the rise will hit most commuters during the first full week after most Covid restrictions were lifted. With millions of people and employers embracing hybrid working (working part of the week from home) the ‘rail commuting model’ based on a nine to five, five day working week is no longer fit for purpose. The Government did launch a ‘flexible commuter ticket’ last year which was meant to offer people travelling into offices two days a week a discount on advance returns, but reviews of the ticket have been mixed, with many people saying it offers no saving – and could actually be more costly than other options - and that the restrictions mean it isn’t practical. It’s certainly nowhere near the flexible season ticket we had been calling for that offered an equivalent saving to a full-time one.

So what else could the Government be doing? Plenty. For a start the Government could make good on its pledge to peg fare rises to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), rather than the discredited Retail Price Index (RPI) used for today’s increase. It was former Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, who said back in 2018 that future fare rises would be pegged to CPI but gave no date for the switch. Almost four years on and we still have no idea when this change might take place. Had CPI been used to calculate today’s increase, fares would be going up by 2.1 per cent instead of 3.8 per cent.

We are also waiting for the promised ‘root and branch’ reform of the fares and ticketing system which was a key recommendation of the Williams Shapps Rail Review. This promised complete overhaul of the whole fares system should aim to improve passenger experience and value for money, as well aiming to increase passenger numbers. We want to see it include things like pay-as-you-go ticketing, more contactless payment options, zonal fares in towns and cities and an end to ‘split ticketing’ where it can be cheaper to by multiple tickets for a journey than one for the full route. The problem is we have no idea when any of these improvements might come into effect, leaving passengers paying more for less and less.

The UK already has high public transport fares, as proved in a recent report by Clean Cities Campaign which put London, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh bottom out of 36 European cities on the affordability of their public transport systems, and this was before today’s fare rise. The report found that high fares are impacting on the cities’ ability to reach net zero emissions from transport, something the Government must take notice of as it continues to battle to reduce UK-wide emissions from transport which have hovered around a third of the total for decades now. Unless it ups its efforts to get people using public transport more, it’s hard to see where the carbon savings will come from as electric cars alone aren’t going to do it. People will use the most convenient, affordable transport option available to them and if that isn’t the train or bus then they simply won’t use it. 

Of course, the Government’s reasoning for raising fares - apart from it’s in the diary to do so - is it hopes higher fares will mean higher revenue for the railways. Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that this is not necessarily the case, and with its previously ‘captive commuter’ market gone, the Government may very well find that this year’s fare rise is a false economy that comes back to haunt it with increased carbon emissions, worse air pollution, more congestion and a slower economic recovery.

 

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