The UK’s transport secretary has admitted that the country’s rail system is “not fit for purpose” and needs major reform, including a shake-up of the current ticketing and fare rules.
Mark Harper laid out the government’s plans for “fundamental reform” of the sector, during a speech to the Institute for Civil Engineers on Tuesday (7 February).
“The railways, quite frankly, aren’t fit for purpose,” said Harper. “We’re mired in industrial action, which lets down passengers and freight customers down, and is historically unable to deliver major improvements at good value for the taxpayer.
“Britain is yearning for a modern railway that meets the needs of the moment. One reliable enough to be the seven-day-a-week engine for growth businesses expect.”
As part of its plans for “fundamental reform”, the UK government is setting up Great British Railways (GBR), a new public body which will oversee rail transport across the country.
Harper stressed the importance of putting customers first as part of the reform of the rail industry, but he also laid bare the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with revenue still down by £125-£175 million per month compared with pre-Covid levels.
“Any other industry would have collapsed years ago but the railways have only survived because of the taxpayer and the public purse,” he added.
“We will create a more customer-focused and joined-up railway. But we want to go further and actually enhance the role of the private sector - not just in running services but in maximising competition, innovation and revenue growth right across the industry.”
The current complex ticketing and fares structure was one of the areas particularly highlighted for action by Harper in his speech.
“To raise revenue, we must instil a customer-first culture - that means reliable services, comfortable journeys and accessible stations,” argued Harper. “It also means tackling the issue which tops passenger lists of biggest concerns, which is fares and ticketing.
“With 55 million fares available how can anyone feel confident they’re getting the best value for money? Ticketing should be hassle-free, something you barely have to think about.”
Harper unveiled plans to extend “pay as you go” fares to another 52 stations in southeast England later this year, including on Chiltern, London Northwestern and C2C services.
He added that fares should also be “fairer” and highlighted that there was often “little difference” in the price of single and return tickets.
“After LNER’s successful single-leg pricing trial we’ll extend it to other parts of the LNER network from the spring and then carefully consider the results of those before extending more widely,” he said. “It means a flexible single fare will always be half the cost of the equivalent return – giving passengers more flexibility and better value.”
Harper insisted these moves were “not about increasing fares” but allowing passengers “to benefit from simpler ticketing that meets their needs”.
“We’re also going to learn from the aviation sector and better manage capacity, as well as raise revenue by trialling demand-based pricing on some LNER services too,” he added.
Jason Geall, executive vice president SME at American Express Global Business Travel, welcomed the transport secretary’s announcement about simpler fares and an increased use of digital ticketing.
“To succeed, the reforms must deliver a seamless rail experience for business travel,” added Geall. “To do that, they need to reflect the needs and priorities of people traveling for work. A sustained collaboration between rail and corporate travel will let us put rail at the heart of business travel.”