Fare game? Peak prices can’t rise
The delayed command paper containing the government’s response to the McNulty report has been released (see news story on opposite page and Wright Track, pages 18-19). The national press honed in on the comments about fares, particularly as the possibility of raising some peak time fares is mentioned. This would be offset by measures such as offering cheaper season tickets both to those who work part time and those who are able to travel during what is sometimes called the ‘shoulders’ of the peak – in other words, still travelling between 07:00 -10:000 in the morning and 16:00-19:00 in the evening, but avoiding the very busiest trains.
There is to be a separate review of ticketing before any decisions are made about fare changes. But it is safe to say that further raising of peak fares will be extremely unpopular. Raising fares on the most overcrowded trains would effectively penalise commuters for, as the command paper puts it, driving ‘the need for capacity enhancements by travelling at the busiest times’. Since the most overcrowded trains in the country are those that go in and out of London during the peak, it would effectively mean putting up the fares on the most expensive routes anyway. By way of comparison, a single fare from Reading to London, arriving before 09:00 is £20.60.
A single ticket from Darlington to Newcastle, also arriving before 09:00, is £8.90.
‘But we travel on older, more uncomfortable rolling stock,’ a northern commuter would probably say, to justify the price difference. ‘Well I spend the entire journey crammed into a vestibule with many others – I’ve never sat on a seat!’ a Reading-based commuter would probably counter. (See pages 26-27 for commuters comments about the horrors of First Great Western’s peak services into London).
The fares review needs to carefully consider regional differences in prices. What the government sees as some kind of a ‘supplement’ to travel on the most popular services, commuters will see as pricing people off the railways. Those travelling in the south-east of England will again want to ask why they pay so much more than their northern counterparts for journeys at any time of day, which is largely a historical anomaly, rather than a genuine reflection of the quality of the trains.
There is some good news on fares in the command paper, however, including the idea of different types of season tickets, or carnets, for part-time workers or those who work non-standard hours. At the moment commuters who only travel two or three days a week often have little option but to queue up each time to buy an Anytime return ticket, with none of the discounts available to their full-time colleagues.
The intention to end annual increases above the rate of inflation is also stated in the paper – and it will be welcomed by passengers. The above-inflation rises that we have seen for the last 10 years came about as a result of a decision, by the then- Labour government, that further investment was needed in the railways and that passengers ought to part finance it. This is where Britain is so out of step with most other European countries, where railways are seen as a public service funded mainly out of general taxation, with fares kept at a more affordable level.
Naturally the investment that has gone into the railways has been very beneficial. But charging ever higher fares, when the UK is already the most expensive place in Europe to travel by rail, is not the right way to do it.