Rail passengers across the country will be letting out a collective groan today as they discover how much their season tickets will rise by next year, with government pegging increases to July’s inflation figure published this morning.
Nobody likes to pay more to get to work. While train punctuality has improved in recent months, we know there is still more to do.
Money from fares, however – 98p in every pound – pays to run the service and it ensures that the improvements everyone wants to see can be afforded.
Fares rise in line with inflation to cover the increasing cost of running the railway. Staff wages, the price of leasing trains and many other day-to-day costs all rose by significantly more than inflation last year.
Without increasing fares by inflation, as a nation we would have a choice to make: Divert more taxpayer money into the railway, at the expense of other key public services like schools, hospitals and policing, or spend less on things like track maintenance and investment in new carriages and extra services. This in turn would mean more delays, more crowded trains and fewer new connections.
Ultimately, money to fund the railway has to come from taxpayers or passengers. Over the course of a decade, successive governments – both Labour and Conservative – chose to push more of that cost onto people who use trains and away from the whole population by increasing fares above the rate of inflation. With fares now rising in line with the cost of living, this balance is remaining steady.
Other European countries take a different approach. Taxpayers there fund the railways to a far greater degree. This is why we so often hear about trains on the continent being cheaper.
As a public service, the ultimate decision about the balance between taxpayers and farepayers for funding the railway will naturally rest with politicians.
It’s not just the level of fares that rail passengers dislike though. It’s also the feeling that the rail fares system is too rigid to reflect how they live their lives, especially as the increase in flexible working means we don’t all follow the Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 grind. Too often, people feel the system is working against them.
Commuters know they can end up paying a higher price if they work part-time or from home occasionally. Also, long-distance travellers battle with an unnecessarily confusing range of options. They can end up killing time at a station waiting for the “right” train, seeing empty services depart only for their train to be crammed full.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Last summer, the rail industry worked together with the independent watchdog Transport Focus to carry out the biggest ever consultation into what people want from rail fares.
Almost 20,000 people told us they want a simpler system – fares which suit modern working patterns, provide flexibility if plans change, and harness technology like smartphones and online accounts to make paying for travel easier. Most importantly people want to know they are paying the best price for the ticket that meets their needs.
The rail industry has brought forward radical proposals to deliver this while giving people better value.
We need to start afresh by moving away from a system of fixed packages of pre-prescribed fares to one where a single journey on one train serves as the basic building block. Banishing today’s system which resembles a bowl of spaghetti with fares overlapping one another, in favour of a Manhattan-style grid system – logical and easy to navigate.
Across the country, this could enable the kind of pay-as-you-go, “tap-in tap-out” system with seven-day price caps that currently only people in London experience, because the capital operates under different rules. Commuters would have far greater freedom to mix and match their tickets and potentially save money if they work fewer than five days or travel off-peak.
Inter-city travellers would see a far bigger range of cheaper walk-up fares and potential reductions in their peak time travel, better spreading demand and reducing overcrowding by up to a third on some of the busiest services. Our proposals would also banish confusing contradictory fares, so people would no longer have to find work-arounds to get the best deal.
The changes needed to make simpler fares a reality require pre-internet era regulations to be updated by government, however. Root and branch reform, no short-term fixes.
With the right political support we‘re optimistic the benefits could be rolled out across the network over the next 3-5 years.
In its on-going review of the railway, the government has the perfect vehicle through which to deliver change. Indeed, the independent chair of the review, Keith Williams, has spoken of the importance of reforming the fares system to rebuild trust among passengers.
The new Secretary of State for Transport must prioritise this when the review reports later this autumn. If we are to rebuild trust in our trains, we must first fix fares. Passengers Must Know ‘The Right Arse To Kick’ For Railways To Improve, Says Boris Johnson
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