Friday, 11 October 2013

Staying on the Right Track - Rail Fare Reform

Hmmmm... while we do not want to appear reactive in this policy forum and vastly prefer to be proactive but we cannot help having a thought that there lies a danger in the move of Norm Baker to the Home Office that the whole issue of fare reform will go by the wayside (the trackside?) as the new Minister is a Londoner. It is very easy for Londoners to dismiss the travails of the more long-distancing commuting crowd in the South-East. Many of these hard-pressed commuters are in seats that LibDems are either in first or second position come election time. 

It was less than a month ago (September 18th) that Norm Baker revealed plans for fare reform. The moves were a start in our view but only a start at reforming a century of obsession with season tickets, an instrument of oppression for commuters all across the South-East. 

One of our biggest gripes, beyond the absolutely outrageous level of fares in general is that part-time workers have to pay for five days' weekday service, yet may work only three, lose out heavily under the current inflexible system, as do those who have to work weekends. At least those who only work weekends can benefit from off-peak rates. 

The scheme mooted by Norm Baker in his dying days in the transport ministry also included discounted tickets for those travelling in the slightly quieter periods at either end of the rush hour, known as the shoulder peak.

Norm Baker explained had explained to the press that the aim of the scheme was to make season fares more equitable and flexible and “give commuters a better deal on the railways”.

He said: “Millions of people no longer work traditional nine to five.

“Flexible ticketing must reflect that.

“It will give passengers a better deal by reducing the money they spend on fares and will spread demand across the network by encouraging them to take less busy services.”

The plan for flexible season tickets is one of a range of options to modernise train fares as part of the Government's Fares and Ticketing Review.

The Department for Transport will run a competition next year to select a train operator to run a pilot on a busy commuter route into London.

Mr Baker said a more flexible approach using “smart technology” (such as Oyster cards) is vital.

“Part-time workers and those who sometimes work from home have long complained they have to pay the full price for season tickets even though they do not get the full benefit,” he said.

“Under this pilot we will look at how we can give them a better deal and also reward those commuters who avoid the busiest rush hour services.”

However, this reform seems more like a band-aid and we wonder how much passion Baroness Kramer will bring to the issue. Is she really even interested in those parties that have to pay ₤60 to travel from somewhere like Havant or Winchester into London on an ad hoc basis? Why is the fare so high in the first place? It's a vast multiple of the minimum wage. It's a big chunk out of even a well-padded traveller's budget if they only make the trip infrequently.

Frankly season tickets themselves are like a relic of the 1950s. The commuter zone has been steadily extended with the fares now at criminal levels at its farthest extremities. Travelling at 9 am from Winchester to London (getting there after 10.15) at best costs you ₤60 with no concessions allowed. The journey is roughly 63 miles so it's a bit under 50p per mile for the round trip. Meanwhile from Wimbledon to Waterloo (a distance of 13.6 miles round trip) is ₤6.90 (so 50.7p per mile). Now the railways might argue that it costs them just as much to run a train over each mile over a long distance as it does over a short distance, but when one looks at the inconvenience that longer distance commuters suffer then one could very well argue for lower fares per mile after a certain point. It would certainly do no harm for the LibDems to take up the cudgels with a case for fares to drop substantially beyond the greenbelt. 

The powers-that-be need to decide that if that don't want everyone stacked into London then longer distance travellers need to have a compensatory reduction in fares for the inconvenience and mediocrity of the service over longer distances. I fortunately can arrange my days (usually) to travel to London after the Network card rates kick in (though that invariably means arriving at Waterloo after 11.30 am). However, one is paying premium rates in peak hours from the station where I alight and yet the trains are particularly dire in their frequency being only once an hour in non-peak times and not all that much better in peak times. The station is never manned, despite being on the mainline and passengers can only enter and alight from the front carriage.  

Thus there is a great difference in the service level that the distance traveller receives versus the outer-urban commuter while the price per mile is not all that different. Frankly there is no admission of comparative advantage (dare we call it economies of scale) by the rail operators for the longer distances.

The vast swathe of constituencies and population across the South-east, East, South and the near-North are daily milked by the railway operators in a rather brutal fashion with excessive fares for distance travel. Oh joy! Can't you just see it in your fellow travellers' faces!

A substantive proposal would be to have fares decline steadily on a per-mile basis beyond a certain distance from London.... the point at which the fares start to decline might well be called the "pain barrier" and every long distance traveller knows that point in the evening where they think "oh no, we are still only half-way home" and yet it feels like an hour (and is probably more like 40 minutes) since the train first departed. 

Indeed that gives us the wicked thought that the fares should start dipping substantially the longer the journey in time. Let the train operators wrap their minds then about how long the train takes.. The shorter the journey in time... The bigger the revenue for them. An Oyster-like card that measured the time from clocking in to clocking out with shorter times being more expensive per minute might be the way to turn new technology to the travellers' benefit.      

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