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Roads to Nowhere

New Government rail policy paper

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16 March 2012: The Secretary of State for Transport has presented a new rail command paper to Parliament. It includes a little good news and a lot of bad news for rail passengers.

Last year a Government commissioned report set out ways that the rail sector could save money. Last week's policy paper was the Government's response. Below is a breakdown of things in the paper that we like the sound of as well as things that we have serious concerns about.

The end to above inflation fare rises? Not really. The Secretary of State has said that inflation-busting rises will end. However, she has made no change to her policy of above-inflation rises in 2013 and 2014. Some might say she has been disingenuous; she is trying to take credit for something she has not done. Current Government policy means fares will rise by 24 per cent between 2011 and 2015, and only plateau towards the end of the decade.

Flexible tickets. Our work gets results! We have been campaigning for more flexible fares for part-time workers, so we are pleased to see this in the command paper. However, it would be a shame if we had to wait until the technology for electronic smartcards is installed across the country. Products like carnets (for example, where you by ten tickets  for the price of nine) and part-time season tickets (that are already used in Devon and Cornwall) prove that you do not have to wait for smartcards to get flexible tickets for modern working. We have also been campaigning hard for changes to advance tickets, so we are delighted that the Government is now considering a change so that passengers can pay the difference between the cost of a new ticket and their advance ticket if they miss the train.  

Savings, efficiencies and cuts. The Government says savings of between £2.5 and £3.5 billion in the railways by 2019 are achievable. We agree that making real efficiency savings and passing these on to passengers as fare reductions is essential. However, cutting money from front-line passenger services, like ticket offices and train staff, will do more harm than good. Passengers want to know that train fares will be collected, that stations will not be deserted and dangerous, and that staff at ticket offices will be able to answer questions when they have them. Without these basic passenger services, rail will be less attractive to new customers. We think that passengers should not have to bear the brunt of cuts, and instead savings should be made by bringing greater openness and cooperation into what is a fragmented sector. At the moment it is too easy to let money drain away through complicated contracts, bills and fines. This fragmentation is not easy to resolve, but with greater collaboration, less finger pointing and more accountability and transparency, serious savings can be made.  

Capacity and electrification. We welcome efforts to get more trains running on more lines, and to improve and electrify the railway. However all too often high-profile projects like High Speed 2 take the lime light and the lion’s share of the resources. The benefits of a far reaching rail network, serving communities across the UK and linking major cities with rural parts of the country, should not be underestimated. Investment should be available across the rail network. We are happy to see that local rail and line reopenings are mentioned in the paper, but if train operators are given greater commercial freedom they could offer a reduced service on quieter and less profitable lines.

Smart ticketing. The Secretary of State has a lot to say about the benefits of smart ticketing, but we have been hearing similar noises from her and her predecessors for a long time.  What matters here is that words are backed up by action – and fast. We also want smartcards to help people to make integrated journeys, so they will need to be valid on buses too, like the Oyster card in London.

“Accommodating” passenger increases or positively encouraging it?  Although the Government paper acknowledges the environmental role of the railways, it does not go far enough. We need the Government to commit to specific policies to promote rail use and to get more people out of their cars and on to trains. Cheaper rail fares should be the first step. This is a missed opportunity.

Finances. The railway is a public service, bringing benefits to us all. It  deserves to be funded with public money as well as fares. However, the Secretary of State wants to reduce year-on-year the proportion of funding coming from Government. No equivalent railway in Europe runs on the fare box alone; instead governments across the rest of Europe invest in public transport because they know it make sense for people, the economy and the environment.  

Stations. The Secretary of State talks about investment, but stations are an area of the railways that could really benefit and blossom with the help of private outlay. Cafes, shops, Internet services, cycle hire and sandwich stalls are just some of the retail and business opportunities in stations. Revenue from commercial rents should be re-invested into station upkeep and improvements, making sure that essential basic services, such as public toilets, are maintained. Stations must remain hubs for people who want to get rail information and get help with buying the right ticket. Ticket machines are a helpful addition, but not a substitute to staff. Not least because machines break down and cannot always be trusted to sell the cheapest ticket.

'High peak' fare hikes. The Government has explained that it wants to use fares to change travel habits, and is attracted to the idea of extra high fares for peak trains. Incentivising people to travel outside of peak times sounds like a good idea, in principle, but in practice this must not mean simply trying to price people off busier trains. This will only serve to penalise those people who cannot change their work and travel patterns, and confirm the impression that rail is not a value for money service. Some difference between peak and off-peak prices is to be expected, but the gap must not grow wider than it currently is. All fares need to start coming down against inflation. The DfT predict that 4 per cent fewer rail journeys will be taken as a result of the policy RPI plus 3 per cent rises on regulated fares, and industry experts think that price sensitivity could be higher than expected. If rail is to compete with car and aviation going forward, it needs to be able to offer affordable walk-on fares at every time of the day. After all it is not very helpful to have very regular train services, if the only ticket you can afford ties you to one  train only.  

Passenger power. We welcome the news that the role of the Office of Rail Regulation will be strengthened, but we want passengers to have an advocate on the board, so that passenger interests are at the heart of what the ORR do.

Structures. The command paper also includes a package of complicated sounding ideas like vertical integration, alignment and concessions, to reform some structures in the railway. What this will mean for passengers is difficult to predict. Letting some local transport authorities in big cities have more power to tailor rail services to local needs could work well, but it is vital that new measures do not add to the expensive problems of fragmentation and inefficiency.

So what happens next? This command paper will set out the Governments direction of travel, and if we want the Government to change course on any of these issues, we are going to have to speak out and step up to the challenge.

A good start is to take part in the Government review on fares and ticketing that started last week. If you care about the future of the railways, now is the time to raise your voice.

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