Female passenger operating ticket machine

Minister to announce rail fare reform in Britain

Female passenger operating ticket machine at Hayes and Harlington station in the west of London Network Rail media centre

Due on later Tuesday but leaked in the UK on Monday, rail minister Mark Harper is expected to make a sweeping statement on the state of the British railway network. There is huge speculation that the passenger ticketing system will be radically changed, with the possibility of return tickets as a concept consigned to the fare box in the sky. The statement will be made against a backdrop of revenue from fares apparently permanently reduced as a result of long-term changes in travel patterns since the pandemic.

With a number of reports on his desk, a plan to reform the management of the railway network in progress, and the franchise system as good as dead in the sidings, rail minister Mark Harper has plenty of material for his House of Commons stand up act on Tuesday. Whether that is met with applause, or laughed out of the door remains to be seen.

A good move to encourage train travel

Britain may have been left behind in more generous offers from European operators, with its anaemic fare sale last year. However, faster than a late running express, the news that ticketing and fare reform is coming, has been leaked by every political and industry figure who can operate a social media account. The UK government – who seem to believe no announcement is worth making unless its made a day before it’s scheduled – has obviously leaked the headline from Mark Harper’s statement, twenty-fours in advance of its scheduled departure.

portrait of Mark Harper MP
Official portrait of Rt Hon Mark Harper MP, the UK rail minister

“Simpler train ticketing is on its way”, tweeted an enthusiastic David Horne, who runs the government-owned East Coast operator LNER. “The trial we’ve been running since January 2020 has been received well by customers so allowing train companies to roll this out more widely is a good move to encourage train travel”, he added – omitting that his ‘operator of last resort’ company faces independent competition from open access operators Lumo and Grand Central, who just happen to have similar flexibility in their ticketing.

Return rail tickets to be scrapped

Some clues came in a blog from Charlene Wallace, currently co-opted from her senior Network Rail post to head up the Programme Director – Customer division at Great British Railways, the organisation that aspires to replace NR as Britain’s infrastructure and railway management agency (actual arrival time and scope yet to be finalised). “The pandemic has given people and businesses more choice, speeding up trends that were starting to develop previously”, says Charly. “No longer do thousands of commuters feel they have to travel into the office every day. Instead, more customers are travelling less often or at quieter times of the day. On the other hand, there are other trends; for instance, leisure markets are growing, creating new opportunities for the network.”

portrait of Charlene Wallace of Network Rail and GBRTT
Charly Wallace of the Great British Railways Transitino Team, seconded from her freight and passenger managerial role at Network Rail

Those opportunities may well embrace what every savvy commuter has been doing for years, to try and manage the cost of rail travel – by taking advantage of any offer, time-dependent fare scheme, or just not travelling whenever possible. For the latter read “hi-brid working” – the modern trend for spending more time hunched over the keyboard and less time crunched over the armpit of the other hapless commuters on the peak-fare all-stations to the office.

A whole season ticket of speeches

What’s left for left-out Mark Harper to announce? The rail minister may well feel his microphone has been disconnected, but he still has plenty of scope to expand on the queue jumpers from industry (and probably his own office). The issue of fares reform is a topic almost as popular as the weather in polite British conversation.

Harper though, may be clever, and play his railcards close to his chest. There is, after all, a whole season ticket of speeches available to him. The detail of passenger ticketing could easily fill the news agenda for this week. All that before anything radical like – who knows – a competitive pricing structure for rail freight more in line with avowed decarbonisation goals – might be addressed. That’s probably for another day, and not Tuesday. Mark’s stand up career is not a one-way ticket, even if one-way tickets are his big punch line.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

1 comment op “Minister to announce rail fare reform in Britain”

Ken Johnson|07.02.23|19:13

‘Consigned to the rusting Used Tickets box in the sky,’ surely?

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