Rail fares should be based on the official measure of inflation and trials of new formats cannot arrive too soon, says Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of Transport Focus
At the point most people are still enjoying the summer the railway turns one eye towards winter and January's fare increases. The amount by which regulated fares can increase is set by July's inflation rate – so today's announcement fires the starting gun for the whole process.
No consumer likes prices to go up for anything – and rail passengers are certainly no different in this respect, but it is much easier to accept these increases if you are getting a better service and you feel you are getting value for money.
While punctuality has improved in some areas, the recent 'hot weather' and the 'power outage' of last Friday show just how fragile and unreliable services can be at times. Far too many rail passengers - especially commuters - are far from satisfied with value for money. The National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) shows that less than one-third of commuters (and not quite half of all passengers) feel they get value for money. Many passengers will be mystified why fares are to rise again and most will find it hard to accept paying more when they feel they are getting less.
This reality is not helped by the way fare increases are calculated. The official measure of inflation is the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) but rail fares are still based on the Retail Prices Index (RPI). This is despite the Office of National Statistics itself viewing RPI as a flawed measure of inflation with serious shortcomings. What does this mean for passengers? July's CPI is 2.1% and RPI is 2.8% so this difference means that passengers will pay significantly more than they would if CPI were used as the basis for rail fare increases. If your salary is linked to CPI then this means that your ticket price is increasing at a higher rate than your pay - which has also been the case for many years now. Transport Focus believes it is high time for fares to be based on the official measure of inflation.
It is also time for reform of the fares structure. The 'Easier Fares for All' consultation held in 2018 demonstrated a real desire for root-and-branch reform to maximise benefits and to boost value for money ratings. Things like single-leg pricing will make the system easier to understand and the introduction of new fares that match the way people want to travel today, such as season tickets for part time workers, will help address value for money concerns.
The new 16-17 Railcard announced today and promised to launch next week will help. Transport Focus knows through its research that younger passengers resent being charged adult fares when they turn 16 while having to stay in school/education up to their 18th birthday. The new railcard offers a 50 per cent discount and unlike other railcards can be used on season tickets and on travel in peak periods – so it will help to take some of the edge off commuting to school and college. It would however be better if this card covered the entire '6th form' period – students turning 17 early in the new September term will find that it will not cover all of their second year of study. Nevertheless, this new railcard is a welcome start.
Finally... Transport Focus is urging passengers to claim compensation when they are delayed (or heed advice issued by rail operators 'not to travel' when they hold a season ticket). Doing this can feel like a pain at times, but the amounts that eligible passengers can claim really do add up over time. Claiming not only helps take some of the pain out of the fare increase it also sends a clear message to operators to improve punctuality and reliability – so #MakeDelayPay and support the campaign.