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Pandemic should lead to rail fares reform – watchdog

Neil Lancefield, PA Transport Correspondent
·3-min read

Urgent reform of rail fares is needed in response to changing travel patterns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a watchdog has claimed.

Transport Focus is calling for more flexible season tickets or carnets, which offer a discount for multiple journeys when bought up front.

This is to offer better value for people who commute two or three days a week.

A survey of 2,000 people carried out by Transport Focus indicated that 36% believe their job will be home-based with limited travel to their workplace in future.

The watchdog’s chief executive Anthony Smith has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps describing the current fares structure as “illogical”.

He went on: “A new railway needs a 21st-century retail offer, especially when it may need to stimulate demand and persuade passengers to return.

“Changing work patterns will increase demand for flexible season tickets. People working from home for two or three days a week will not want to pay for a traditional season ticket offer but will still expect some recognition that they are a regular, if less frequent, traveller.

“We hope that consideration can be given to accelerating the provision of carnet/flexible season-style tickets.

“As well as improving the work-life balance for passengers, this could also help manage demand in the coming months when capacity is scarcer.”

Reform of fares is expected to be a key part of the Government-commissioned Rail Review.

It was due to be published in autumn 2019, but has been delayed by December’s general election and the coronavirus pandemic.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “While our top priority rightly is combatting the spread of coronavirus, we know long-term the outbreak will likely affect how we commute.

“We are still working at pace with industry to examine how we can help make sure part-time and flexible commuters are provided with better value and more convenient options. This builds on the plans announced earlier this year to trial new ticket types on some GTR services for flexible and part-time commuters.

“Our ambition before this crisis was delivering better journeys and value for money for passengers, and that commitment is unwavering.”

Rail services across Britain will be ramped up from around 70% of pre-lockdown levels to 85% from Sunday due to an expected increase in demand as hospitality businesses reopen.

Train companies have introduced a series of measures to help tackle the virus, including signs helping passengers stay two metres apart where possible, enhanced cleaning of carriages and vending machines for face coverings at stations.

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “With pubs, restaurants and other businesses reopening next week, more people will be taking the train.

“While we are still asking people only to take the train if necessary, as the lockdown is eased further we are stepping up timetables and taking other steps so people can travel with confidence.

“In return, we want people to help us by avoiding the busiest times, wearing a face covering and checking the latest train information online before setting off.”

Transport Focus published the results of its latest passenger satisfaction research on Thursday.

The survey of nearly 20,000 travellers between January 27 and March 16 indicated that overall satisfaction was 82%, down one percentage point on spring 2019.

The operators with the most improved scores were Great Northern (up nine percentage points), Grand Central (up six percentage points) and ScotRail (up five percentage points).

Those showing the largest declines were Avanti West Coast (down seven percentage points compared with predecessor Virgin Trains), TransPennine Express (down five percentage points), West Midlands Trains (down five percentage points) and South Western Railway (down four percentage points).

Transport Focus warned that some of its findings should be treated with caution as the lockdown meant its sample sizes were around 75% of normal levels.