Rail 923: In a logical world, peak fares would be abolished but….

One clear result of the Covid crisis is that we have to recognise that moving around more is not necessarily a good thing. We may have cheered every time rail passenger numbers went up but there was always a downside. The growth in passengers led to pressure on the network and constant demands for more investment, much of which was needed only at peak times.

So working out what is the railway for in this new world is going to be the task for 2021 and beyond. Think, for instance, of Crossrail about which I wrote a book that was published in December 2018 when the line was supposed to be open. Now when this fantastic project opens in a year or so, its trains are unlikely ever to be full, even if it only runs at half the 24 trains per hour capacity. It will take a long time for those commuters to come back and clearly from all the evidence we have so far, not many will be straphanging five days per week. Indeed, straphanging itself may be a thing of the past.

So railway 2.0 must be very different from its predecessor. It will have to fight for every passenger and offer a different type of experience than before. It must play to its strengths and emphasise these in all its marketing (which has to be extensive).

First, the railway must be able to compete on price. Everyone in the industry should be lobbying as strongly as possible against the proposed fares increases in March. This is insanity. Compare this with a product like Coca Cola losing half its market because of, say, competition or a scare about it causing cancer. Would the producers say, oh right, let’s double the price to £2 per bottle in order to protect revenue? I suspect not.  The Treasury ministers pushing this increase through have clearly never done GCSE Economics or otherwise they would realise that this is not the time to raise fares. Quite the opposite.

My view is that peak fares should be abolished. The off-peak fare should become the norm, repriced so that each leg, outward and return, costs the same, rather than the ridiculous left over from British Rail of charging a high fare for a single and just £1 for the return. Even if this were only a temporary measure – and I would argue it should be permanent – it would kick start railway usage and make many journeys far more appealing. Since all the revenue is currently going to the taxpayer, there are no commercial obstacles to this and, again, it ought to be a campaign adopted by all railway interests. As I have mentioned before, absolutely nothing has happened about ‘flexible season tickets’ despite the pandemic now entering its second year.

At root, rail has to become far more user friendly. In many respects in recent years, the railway companies and the Department have gone in the opposite direction. Cramming in more passengers on harder seats on trains that do not align with windows with fewer on board facilities such as catering,  with incessant safety and police messages making it impossible to relax, and with lighting that the Stasi would be embarrassed to use does not make for a great passenger experience. Much of the pleasure of train travel has been steadily eroded and all that has to be put into reverse. Universal free wifi, guaranteed phone connections, restoring some tables as trains will be less full, better toilets and guaranteed access to food should all become the norm. On longer distance journeys, a seat should be guaranteed, or else a discount paid. There are countless ideas like this that need pursuing …and urgently.

One of the big hopes for high levels of usage this year are staycations and encouraging people to use trains to get to their holiday destination should be a priority. Even last year, this was a market that fared better than most. The railway companies need to exploit that. Discount schemes encouraging people to use the train – ideas like have £25 to spend at your holiday destination if you travel by train – must be backed by positive marketing, using the type of wonderful posters that adorn a million walls today.

Inevitably, the government is moving in the other direction as retrenching and reducing services appear to be its only strategy. Of course cutting back on frequencies during the lockdown is sensible but the government should be preparing for a big ‘return to rail’ when it eases. Instead, the cutbacks announced recently by the government to funding Transport for the North and, in particular, rolling out an integrated smartcard system for bus and rail in the region is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Quite apart from the fact this suggests that ‘levelling up’ is an empty slogan, it also sends out the wrong kind of message on the future of the railway. It may seem counter-intuitive to spend money on investing in improving the railways at a time when passenger numbers are a fraction of what they used to be, but that is precisely what is needed. The railways need to be made more easily accessible and smartcard technology in the North would be a great boost.

Remember that after years of resisting Oyster card and trying to screw as much money as possible out of the Department for Transport before it could be introduced, the private train operators found that far from reducing their revenue, the introduction of smartcard technology boosted it and helped increase their profits. This is undoubtedly now understood in the Department for Transport but clearly not in the Treasury. And unfortunately while Grant Shapps, who is one of the few half competent ministers in the Cabinet, is clever enough to understand this, he does not really care enough to stick his neck out given that he is very likely to be heading off for a bigger job in the inevitable reshuffle once the virus is under control.

This, in microcosm, is the key point. The railways must spend to get better and to provide a better service. Unfortunately, HS2, that bottomless money pit, will suck up any spare money that might have gone towards improving existing schemes. The HS2 fans argue that it is a separate pot of money and will have no impact on current levels of investment. While technically that is true, there is a strong perception that billions are already been spent on the railway and therefore, given the state of the economy, it is wrong to invest in the existing lines. I make this point more in sadness than expectation. HS2 is unlikely to be killed off, but there is no doubt it is the wrong way to be going. We need to restore the existing railway and then assess whether such a massive new project is really required. Sadly, there is no one to do such strategic thinking.


The wrong answer


The Office of Road and Rail press office has responded (Rail 922) to my comment about their highlighting little used stations which I wrote in Rail 920. I suggested that this was a mistake, particularly at a time of national crisis on the railways because it opened the way for critics of the railway to make hay, which the Institute of Economic Affairs director Richard Wellings duly did in anti-rail  article in the Daily Telegraph.

The boys and girls in the press office, clearly with too much time on their hands, suggested that my ‘acerbic’ comments’ were ‘curmudgeonly’.

Well, let me reiterate them and then explain why this response is bad PR. First, the press office said that their press resulted in a large number of column inches. Indeed, but so what? Wife killers get lots of column inches, it doesn’t make murder a positive story. The ORR’s remit is to ensure rail passengers get a fair deal – getting lots of coverage of a silly story hardly fits that bill.

Secondly, the signatory on the letter was ‘The Press Office’ . Hiding behind anonymity to attack a journalist is not a good look for a regulatory body.  Unmask yourselves (but please stay socially distanced)!

Thirdly, this emphasis on little used stations trivialises the excellent work that the ORR does in producing statistics. I know it may be more boring, but how about analysing the important trends in the stats?

And finally, is it really a good idea to attack a rail journalist at a time when the industry is in a state of flux. I have been too long in this business to take such a criticism personally but, yes, as the ‘press office’ wrote, there are ‘bigger issues in the industry’ and I am rather tempted to write about them, perhaps starting with – what is the ORR for in a quasi-nationalised industry? Be careful what you wish for.