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‘Utterly unfit for purpose’

The rail fare system needs an overhaul, but I doubt if the government will do anything about it, says Simon Calder

Boris Johnson examines an old railway line last month

Those of us who write about the railways can plan out each year knowing a request from the news editor to write about train fares is certain on three specific days.

The cycle will begin on 18 August this year, when the Retail Price Index (RPI) for July is published. This is the measure used to cap “regulated” fares: season tickets, peak fares around big cities and off-peak returns.

Late in November 2020, the train operators will reveal exactly how much these and unregulated fares will rise – usually fractionally below RPI. And I have already pencilled in 4 January 2021 as the likely day for the next round of fare hikes will take effect.

These annual rituals are a result of the rules baked in to the fares system at privatisation in the 1990s and barely changed since: a blunt, across-the-board rise, though tempered in Scotland.

I can also paraphrase the quotes from interested parties. The transport secretary (whoever he or she may be by then) and the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, will say that increasing ticket revenue is essential to cover costs and fund investment.

Labour will say fares have risen by 43 per cent since 2010 and that passengers are paying more for less under the Tories.

And the long-suffering commuter on the overstuffed 7.27am from Woking to Waterloo will curse under his or her breath that the annual season ticket has gone up another £50.

There is just a chance that my routine may change in 2020: that, at last, pledges to reform radically the fares system, to remove decades of anomalies and to introduce a simple pricing model based on single tickets will finally be carried out.

No longer would Thursday evening’s 6.33pm to Liverpool depart from London Euston half-empty, while the train half-an-hour later is standing room only – because of rules laid down in 1995, which require Avanti to offer an off-peak ticket at a controlled fare. And no longer would the train traveller from Bristol to Edinburgh need to buy seven separate tickets to reduce the fare by 40 per cent to a more reasonable £100 or so – catching a direct train, but deploying perfectly legal “ticket splits” at Cheltenham, Birmingham, Burton, Chesterfield, York and Morpeth.

Instead, just as with budget airlines, the fare you pay will depend on demand. Market pricing will ease crowding and fill empty seats.

So, as the passenger left stranded by another TransPennine Express or Northern Rail cancellation might say, what are we waiting for?

A government that will tell the train-travelling public that reform means many fares will fall but others must increase by much more than inflation. The last part of that inconvenient truth has, time and again, persuaded politicians to maintain the status quo, even though everyone involved with the rail industry recognises the present system is utterly unfit for purpose.

Even though the new government has a thumping majority and could comfortably push through the changes, I predict I will be writing this same story a year from now.

For the sake of passengers – and the taxpayers who bankroll the rail network – I hope I am wrong.