Last week, buying a ticket for my first rail journey in six months, I said to the kindly ticket clerk, ‘I presume that my Senior Railcard will have been extended since I have been barred from using the railway since December?’ The poor woman almost blushed: ‘I’m afraid not. You will have to buy a new one. You are not the first — and you should complain.’
Indeed. There is both a powerful moral and a practical marketing issue here. I discovered that ministers had decided back in September, after the first lockdown, that five million railcard holders would lose their money since they had not been unable to make use of them. The rail companies and Passenger Focus, the statutory body which represents passengers, were furious.
Rightly so. This is actually theft and that is why it is a moral issue. There is no other word for it. If the government bans me from an activity for which I have paid, then it is the government’s responsibility to compensate me. That is the reasoning behind the furlough schemes and business grants which have been in existence not because ministers suddenly decided they wanted to play Father Christmas but because it is incumbent on the government to provide recompense for stopping people going to work. The same logic should apply to railcards.
Then there is the sheer stupidity of this decision. The railways are on their knees, with revenues still a mere third of pre-Covid levels — and that was before the recent problems with the Hitachi trains. People are reluctant to return to rail over concerns about Covid. Moreover, people working increasingly from home will mean that some of the reduction in passenger numbers, especially on commuting routes, will be permanent.
The government has made up the shortfall in revenue, which has meant monthly payments of £600 million for a year to keep the trains running. But in order to reduce that deficit, people need to be attracted back to the railways. This cheap, underhand little rip-off is not the way to do it.
Ultimately in terms of the recent economics of the railway, this is a trivial amount of money given the extent of the bail-outs. At a cost of £30 each, even having to extend all 5 million – an unlikely proposition – would have cost a mere £150 million. The loss in goodwill will have been far greater. In addition to the above-inflation fare rises forced through by the government, people will simply have yet another reason not to use the trains.
This sad tale serves to demonstrate that the sooner the railways are taken out of the direct control of the government, the better. Two years ago, the Williams investigation into the future structure of the industry was reported to have recommended the creation of an independent railway organisation to take decision-making away from government. That can’t happen quickly enough.