With today’s announcement of the Retail Price Index (RPI) figure for July, we now know that, if the Government decides to go ahead with the annual fare increase in January, regulated rail fares will be going up by 1.6 per cent just as many of us head back to our physical workplaces for the first time since lockdown.
We’ve been calling for a fares freeze to encourage people to use the trains by making the commute more affordable and because raising fares in the new year is counter-productive to getting the economy back on track. With the public still generally cautious about using public transport, today was an opportunity for the Government to use the annual fare increase as a way to build trust back into the railways. Whilst Ministers have as of yet declined to confirm next year's rise, they have stopped short of cancelling it, missing an opportunity to send a clear message about travel choices.
One of the lasting legacies of lockdown may be a permanent change to the commute. Last year, of the 32.6 million people in employment, around 1.7 million people reported working mainly from home (five per cent), and a further four million said they worked from home at least part of the week. In April this year, in the middle of the lockdown, nearly half (47 per cent) of people in employment did at least some of their work from home, a huge shift in working patterns. As people return to offices and workplaces, many will be doing so part time, splitting their working week between the workplace and home. These commuters will feel the pinch of a 1.6 per cent rail fare rise even more acutely, unless the Government announces the introduction of flexible season tickets, which can be used for just part of the week whilst still providing an equivalent discount on full-time season tickets.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last six months, it’s that the future is difficult to predict, but we do know that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our way of working and traveling, possibly for good. The Government must recognise that the needs of commuters have changed and ensure that the railway meets those needs in an affordable way or else we risk the long-term economic and social costs of permanently diminishing the public transport system.
With car traffic already up to between 87 and 105 per cent of pre-lockdown levels, the Government must do more to encourage people to return to public transport, and it must provide the financial incentives to do so. Today was a missed opportunity to do just that.