Could coronavirus see flexible season tickets introduced on train fares?

Video report by ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi

Rail commuters are facing an increase in season ticket prices of 1.6% despite a fall in passenger numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the key questions around the controversial issue:

Will there be more flexibility in rail fares now working from home is more common?

The coronavirus pandemic has severely reduced the number of commuters using rail services, with the trend likely to continue as working from home becomes increasingly common.

Since the lockdown in March, rail usage has slumped to just 23% of pre Covid-19 levels, while only one in three white collar workers have returned to offices.

Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility released in June outlined a 51 million fall in UK rail journeys the fourth quarter of 2019-20, highlighting the impact of coronavirus.

Many commuters services have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: PA

The Rail Delivery Group, which is a body that brings together passenger and freight rail companies, Network Rail and High Speed 2, has been lobbying the Government since 2019 to introduce new payments schemes and flexible ticketing.

They would like to see the introduction of an Oyster card style system, where fares are capped for passengers and they know they're getting the best value for money.

Robert Nisbet, Director of Nations and Regions for the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Decisions about regulated rail fares, including season tickets, are taken by governments who rightly make the choice about the balance between how much farepayers and taxpayers contribute.

"We know that the best way to support economic recovery now and keep fares down in the future is to get more people travelling by train.

"This is why we are delivering our safer travel pledge, are working with government on flexible season tickets and want to work with government to update regulation so that we can build an easier to use, better value fares system which suits changes to how people travel."

The chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee agreed that a three-day weekly season ticket would give commuters more flexibility in uncertain times.

Conservative MP Huw Merriman acknowledged that commuters are currently not travelling for the full week, if they are commuting at all, due to the coronavirus crisis.

“But when people come back, they will not come back five days a week, for a lot of them,” he said.

  • Labour's Thangam Debbonaire says key workers will suffer most for price rises

“They will probably come back for three days a week, and for years we’ve been trying to push this idea of having a three-day season ticket, so that it makes it more flexible.”

He said this is likely to be a reform that will come out of the ongoing Williams Review, adding: “We need that to come out now, so that we encourage people to commute, just part of the week, and get them back into the economy again.”

However the impetus will be on the Government to see if they will follow through with the proposals.

What does the Government say about increasing flexibility for rail commuters?

Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris seemed to signal that change could be on the way.

He added: “Covid-19 has had a huge impact on how people work and travel, which is why it’s important we make sure the railways offer more convenient and better value options for everyone.

“We’re addressing this by investing billions to modernise our network and overhaul fares, including widening pay-as-you-go and smart ticketing, and introducing flexible tickets to benefit those who will be working from home.

“We want these changes to happen as soon as possible, which is why fares will go straight back into funding much-needed improvements to the railways, so that passengers can benefit from better, more reliable and convenient journeys more quickly.”

What are the unions pushing for?

The RMT union is also pushing for more flexible ticket pricing, saying it will save commuters thousands.

The union looked at more than 100 commuter routes across England, Wales and Scotland and the current prices for annual season tickets, saying passengers would make significant savings if they could buy a season ticket valid for part of the week.

Examples of savings included:

  • Brighton to London Terminals current season ticket price is £4,580 a year. A three day a week flexible season ticket would cost £2,748, a saving of £1,832 on a full season ticket

  • St Albans to London Terminals current season ticket price is £3,712 a year. A three day a week flexible season ticket would cost £2,227, saving £1,484 on a full season ticket.

RMT assistant general secretary Mick Lynch said: “The reality is many commuters and their firms will be holding off purchasing season tickets for 2021 as home working becomes a long-term feature.

“There will be a massive drop in demand for conventional season tickets and unless the demand for more flexible tickets and affordable tickets is met, commuters will permanently abandon the railway.

“The Government must rebuild passenger confidence and encourage passengers back to the railway by giving them what they want – flexible ticketing that’s good value and suits their needs as part of the Covid-19 recovery.

Why does the cost of train travel increase every year?

It has been the policy of successive governments to switch the burden of funding the railways from taxpayers to passengers, although the decision to take on the cost risks of rail franchises due to the coronavirus pandemic has altered the balance in recent months.

Regulated rail fares means prices cannot be increased beyond a certain threshold. These are usually on peak time services.

The cap on the annual rise in most regulated fares is linked to the previous July’s Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation, which was announced by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday.

Regulated fares rose by 2.7% in January Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

How much more expensive have train fares become?

Office of Rail and Road figures show that between January 1995 – around the time the network was privatised – and January 2020, average fares increased in real terms by 21%.

When are fares increased?

Prices rise on the first working day of every year.

Who decides how much they go up by?

Increases in about half of fares are regulated by the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments. The rest are decided by train companies.

Which fares are regulated?

Season tickets on most commuter routes, some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys and tickets for travel around major cities at any time are regulated.

How is the cap on the rise in these fares calculated and where does the money go?

Most rises are pegged to the July Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation.

The Rail Delivery Group says 98p of every £1 spent on train fares goes towards running and maintaining services.

Is there any way of avoiding the fare rise or limiting the cost of train travel?

Savvy commuters renew their season tickets in the days before the annual increase.

Passengers can also save money by getting a railcard, travelling off-peak and booking in advance, although these options are not available for many journeys, particularly those made by commuters.

Passengers are able to use tactics such as split ticketing, which can reduce costs of train fares.