Rail 1002: The fares fiasco just got worse

There are times when I need three or four columns to adequately comment on what is happening in the rail industry and this is certainly one of them. So forgive me, dear reader, if this is a bit of a ‘round the houses’ catch up on some – but not all – of these events, but we are living in interesting times which, as the Chinese apparently warn, this does not necessarily mean good times.

Indeed, in many respects, it is quite the opposite. The changes to the ticketing arrangements introduced in great haste by LNER on the London-Edinburgh route are, in some respects, more significant than the now abandoned plan to close 1,000 booking offices across the country. First, an apology. Tweet in haste and repent at leisure. When I first heard about the idea, I actually tweeted that this was welcome ‘innovation’ from a state controlled train operator before I had properly examined the idea. I could not have been more wrong. I can see no merit in these plans and only widespread negative effects which, if replicated over the whole network would send droves of rail users back permanently into their cars.

Briefly, as the details are covered elsewhere in this issue of Rail, the idea is to ‘simplify’ the ticketing arrangements into just three types with, significantly, the abandonment of off-peak and super off-peak fares. And essentially it means the end of the walk on railway for everyone except those prepared to shell out nearly 200 readies for a journey that previously was available for £87. Yes, sir, in a time of a cost of living crisis and touted as a policy to get more people on trains, the Department for Transport has come up with a plan to impose a 121 per cent increase in ticket prices for people wanting to travel at short notice.

Let me explain There are now to be three types of tickets but no longer a cheap one for those not booked in advance. Advance tickets remain pretty much the same, as do Anytime, which is a cool £193.90. But off peak becomes a bizarre ‘flex’ ticket which allows people to travel within a 70 minute window of an advance booked service for an extra £20.

As with the booking office closures which were justified on the basis that only 12 per cent of tickets were bought through them, precisely this same statistic has been used to justify the abolition of the off peak fares. This is nonsense, though. The whole point about the off peak fares is that they are available at short notice to people whose granny has died or football team has earned an unexpected replay. It’s the awareness that the railway is always there at a reasonable price that is one of its key societal benefits. Attracting people to the railways is about flexibility and this is creating barriers to their use. It costs nothing for the railway to fill an extra seat, even at short notice, and pricing should reflect that. Looking at tickets two weeks from when I am writing, this, there are already trains for which no advance fares are available and therefore will cost a staggering £193.90. The trouble with this new system is that no one will know how many tickets at a particular price are available and therefore they will be forced to book in advance as early as possible when their plans may not yet be known.

So who is behind this crazy idea. Step forward the Great British Railways Transition Team, the organisation that has got through some £50m in consulting fees (and rising) without producing any coherent future structure for the railway, with the full support of Huw Merriman, the rail minister. He actually believed that this would be a vote winner, even though on even a cursory examination, it means massive increases for many passengers. And of course, it fits in with the Tories’ agenda of reducing subsidies to the railways. Although, frankly, it is unlikely to help the perilous finance of the railway. London Edinburgh is a daft route to impose such fares rises since it is the one with the most competition of any long distance lines, given that the airlines, coaches and rival railways – Lumo – operate on it.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, it is welcome that Labour has just completed the consultation phase of its investigation into how investment schemes on the railway can be more cost effective, given the HS2 fiasco. Labour has established a committee, headed by former Siemens boss Jürgen Maier to report on ways of avoiding such future cost overruns. When writing my books on Crossrail (Crossrail the Whole Story) and on the public private partnership on the Underground (Down the Tube), I learnt that one of the key factors was having the right people in charge. So much depends on leadership. Crossrail, having foundered when the deadline for completion in December 2018 could not be met, was rescued at the end by relentless efforts from the new leadership team to complete the project. The new boss, Mark Wild was right on the case from the get go, both in terms of the overall scheme, but also with the detail about precisely what was being achieved every day across numerous worksites. That had clearly been lacking under the previous regime at Crossrail and clearly at HS2 as well.

Crossrail did have an advantage of HS2 which that it was broadly popular. People might not have realised what a massive game changer it was, but as they straphanged on the Tube every morning, most were well aware that only an increase in capacity would improve the situation. HS2 never had that. It was missold, misnamed and misconceived. It was promoted as a piece of engineering, rather than as vital part of the railway, it was presented as a high speed project rather than one which provided a huge amount of capacity – a mistake that was addressed later – and there were numerous mistakes in its design: as one of my correspondents put it in an email to me the other day, ‘HS2 did not have a clue about what they wanted to achieve’. Modern projects have to pass so many hurdles in terms of business plans that the basic objectives are often forgotten. The answer is not ‘a high speed line’ but ‘we want better connections with northern cities, how do we best do that’. Again, that is why Crossrail was successful and HS2 failed. Producing swathes of business plans is not the way to ensure the project is viable.

Then there is project management. These projects need a really strong core of project managers who are in house. Once the project management is outsourced, then it becomes matter of which of the two private companies, the manager and the contractor, will make the most money.

Mr Maier’s committee should keep their findings equally simple, perhaps just a few key bullet points that should be at the core of how these projects are conceived and built. I will have more to say about future Labour plans in issues to come – do keep the ideas rolling in as it is very helpful to Christian.wolmar@gmail.com



Why wifi  is so bad on trains


The Sunday Times (Jan 28th) had an excellent article by Nicholas Hellen on the inadequacy of wifi on trains. He was following up on the story first revealed in my podcast last year (Calling al Stations, episode 17, May 21 2023) that the government was thinking of scrapping wifi. At the time lots of people said that it was so bad anyway that it would not make any difference. They had a point but the solution is clearly not to dispense with wifi on trains but, rather, to improve it.

The Sunday Times article reveals that the real reason for the poor quality of wifi on trains is quite simple: money. As Peter Kingsland, the senior vice president at Icomera UK, the main supplier of rail wifi services put it ’The majority of on train wifi services are approaching ten years old. The technology hasn’t kept pace with new developments’. While obviously he has a vested interest in saying that, he is right. The capacity of the on-train equipment does not meet demands and therefore people either get poor access or none at all. Kingsland estimates it would cost £200m to upgrade the service across the network. That might seem high but in fact it is akin to the modern requirement that we no longer defecate onto the four foot. Wifi on trains is essential to attract passengers and will effectively pay for itself through increased – or retained – revenue. Now all we need is a rail minister who understands this and is prepared to sanction such investment, which clearly cannot come from the private sector as no one, these days, is prepared to pay for internet access.






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