It’s that time of year again, the event that every New Year brings: the annual train fare increases.
Every January, train passengers have an added post-Christmas expense. The question is never whether, but how much.
It is not a question that is easily answered either. National Rail has announced that the overall average increase in 2015 will be 2.2%, the lowest in five years. But that’s the average. Regulated fares, which include season tickets, have been capped at a maximum increase of 2.5%. Unregulated fares could be increasing more. Or less.
If a traveller is a season ticket holder, it is a simple search to see how much their ticket will cost next time their existing one expires. But for occasional travellers or those who are regular rail users, but not often enough to make a season ticket pay or not always to the same location, well then it’s a much harder calculation. It will depend not only on where someone is going, but what time of day and how far in advance they can buy their tickets.
Therefore, there are many factors that will influence how much pain the annual event will inflict on household budgets. The follow-up question is whether this is a pain that can and should be borne.
The Campaign for Better Transport has already answered a clear and resounding ‘No’. They have conducted research that indicates that some season ticket holders have experienced fare increases of more than 20% since January 2010 – a period over which average wages have risen by 6.9%.
Yet even these relatively straightforward percentages mask a more worrying regressive trend; the cost of train travel for the part-time or flexible worker. This cohort includes those who work from home, or at odd times, or in a number of different locations on a semi-regular basis. Many of these flexible workers make less than their full-time counterparts and have seen less increase in their wages during the recession, yet whether regulated or not, they still face large annual increases in fares. There are no discounts available to many such workers, not even the marginal ones available to season ticket holders, who save by travelling more.
In 2012, the Government ran a consultation on rail fares and ticketing. Proposals included using smart ticketing to offer different types of discounts. These could include carnet tickets (e.g. buy ten journeys and get the eleventh free), loyalty points for travel on a certain network, and promotions for those who can travel off-peak, but cannot buy advance tickets.
The capability to provide such tickets was predicated on exchanging the out-dated and information-poor magnetic strip tickets for smartcards or perhaps tickets purchased through cloud computing and stored on mobile phones. The relevant technology and appropriate business arrangements were to be trialled in the southeast as part of the ‘SEFT’ (southeast flexible ticketing) project, focused on commuter routes into London. Three years on and the most progress that can be reported is a pilot within a trial and some contract appointments. This is not necessarily behind schedule, but it won’t be helping any flexible workers soon. Especially as the plan is to issue normal season tickets on smartcards before any new products, allowing actual detailed data collection about rail journeys for the first time in the UK.
So, unfortunately, for most, the only silver lining of the annual rail fare rises in 2015 is that it could have been worse.