Making fares fair again

Understandably, most rail sector people are anxious about the consequences of major re-organisation under a Labour Government committed to a "fully integrated railway in public ownership".

But the party's rail policy adviser, Ian Taylor, argues that fragmentation has been damaging and that the complexity of the ticketing system drives customer dissatisfaction and must be tackled. Public support for nationalisation – running at 76% – is likely based on a presumption that rail ticketing and fares would be transformed into something much simpler. The days of bewilderment would end.

To add to the challenge, Ian Taylor wants to achieve the 'benefits of a national vertically integrated railway' while at the same time achieving the benefits of devolution of rail governance and franchising across the UK regions and nations. So, a simpler, fairer, national fares system, freed of the initiatives of individual train companies, would be subject to the policies of devolved authorities instead – unless the revenue side of the equation is for them to be deemed ultra vires.
It's a tall order, but I think there is a fix – and one well worth the effort. Resolving the shambles that is rail ticketing has been put in the 'too hard' box for too long.

For many rail journeys, the cheapest ticket is a split ticket, generally not available at railway web-sites or ticket offices, despite an obligation to offer customers the best price. This is the most egregious example of the bizarre assemblage of offers and archaic rules of British railway ticketing with which Kafka would surely have felt at home.

For shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald, the temptation to presume that the railway companies could come together and solve the problem (perhaps under the aegis of the Rail Delivery Group) is not admissible. So, step one must be a realisation that this is a problem Government must address.

In accepting this point, McDonald could reasonably ask if there is any precedent for the kind of transformational fares simplification from which lessons could be learned. To which my answer would be: yes, absolutely there is, and moreover, it was a policy instigated by a Labour politician which everybody would now agree was a huge success.

The precedent is the set of initiatives that Ken Livingstone and Dave Wetzel of the GLC brought to London Transport in the first half of the 1980s. Remembered by many for Fares Fair of 1981 and the 30% reduction on fares paid through a rates hike (subsequently defeated in a court hearing brought against the GLC by the tory borough of Bromley) it did two essential things. It reduced the myriad set of tube and bus (and eventually rail) fares in London to a simple zonal system. And this opened the door to the 'travelcard' which started as a paper based system and has since progressed through a series of technological enhancements to today's proximity card.

So, forget the ambition to fund a major cut in fares through the rates: but think about the applicability of a similar approach to that adopted in London some 30 years ago. What can be done for London (half of the nation's bus travel; London Underground passenger numbers not far shy of national rail's) can be done for the nation too. Livingstone wanted extreme simplicity – a single fare – and had to be persuaded an inner and outer zone would be better. This then became the familiar 6 zone system for Greater London (with further zones beyond).

Elsewhere, the Netherlands, Denmark with south Sweden, national zonal fares structures have been developed. They work brilliantly at overcoming the problems of interfaces between different travel modes. Their simplicity attracts many more users – as evidenced by the huge growth in public transport use in London through the 1980s.

But, McDonald will wonder, how can such a radical change be implemented – especially given the huge revenue streams involved (at levels so high, HMT takes an interest).

There are two keys to the implementation path. The first is based on London's experience. The national rail network in London is substantial but entirely, until recently, under DfT and not TfL's control. That didn't stop the introduction of TfL-specified combined mode tickets (including rail), with zonally-set prices, while rail dithered on with its multitude of mileage-based station to station tickets. In due course, with a much-diminished user base, the rail-only tickets (some of which were in fact much cheaper) could be safely abandoned (in 2007, to minor uproar in Surbiton). In other words, overlay electronic zonal ticketing, and remove the current station-station fares by specified routes and operators and times of day when it is expedient to do so.

The second key is to ask the devolved regions and nations to create their own zonal maps that can, with London's, form the basis of the national system.