/ Travel & Leisure

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for commuters?

Light in train tunnel

Rail commuters will be breathing a sigh of relief today, as the government has introduced rules restricting rail companies from increasing regulated rail fares by more than 6.2% next year.

Every year, I wait with bated breath to find out how much extra I’ll be paying for my annual season ticket. And every year, the cost of my ticket increases far above the level of inflation. In fact, one year, my ticket increased by more than 11% – ouch.

But it seems I can breathe a small sigh of relief as next year, the government is introducing new rules that will cap average rail fare increases at inflation plus 1% in England. This means that in 2014, rail fares can only increase by an average of 4.2%. On top of that, rail companies will only be able to increase fares by a maximum of 2% above this level (previously set at 5%), as long as the increases are offset by reductions to other fares.

In Scotland, rail fares will be capped at inflation plus 0% – there is no flex like in England. And the fare rise has not been announced in Wales yet.

Unfair fare increases

So, next year, the largest fare increases will reach 6.2%. Although that’s still a budget-squeezing potential increase of £279 on my own ticket, it definitely eases the blow when compared to hikes I’ve faced in previous years.

I have to admit, I’d be more willing to stump the large fare increases if I actually saw an improvement in the trains I use. And it seems that other commuters are in the same boat (or train). We found only 22% of train users actually felt their service improved following the last set of rail fare rises.

According to our survey, more than half of train companies have a customer satisfaction score of just 50% or lower . But if train travel is your only choice, many commuters feel they have to stomach poor service and delays.

Light at the end of the tunnel

The government says it also plans to introduce a ticketing code of practice to make sure passengers get clearer information, flexible ticketing to help part-time workers get fairer ticket prices, and a strengthening of rules around ticket office opening times. We welcome moves to empower commuters with more information so they can get the best value ticket for their journey.

As the cost of living keeps on climbing, I’ve found the inflation-busting increases on ticket prices particularly hard to stomach. This announcement has gone some way to allay my fears over next year’s increase, but will the cap be enough to placate the millions of passengers using UK trains every day?


There’s not much joy from news reports:
the average 4.1 % increase will come in
January 2014 as envisaged including to 6.1%
….. it is the more extreme case of over 9 %
that is to be capped or prohibited as I’m given
to understand.

All in all, not much of a giveaway if anything.

Trains for commuters are actually the most expensive to operate and commuters pay much less per mile than other passengers. However, commuters have rightly been sheltered from the full force of railway economics because (a) they are effectively a captive market and victims of monopoly supply [even where there is a choice of train operator on a route, the fare levels are set by one of them for application to all], and (b) because the alternative – buses or private transport – is not viable for shifting the millions over the distances now involved. I feel a lot more could have been done, and still could be done, to disperse jobs from the metropolitan areas to other towns and cities that have lost employment although I appreciate the difficulties: once people have settled in an area and, with other members of the family, have adapted their work/school/college arrangements to suit that location, firms and other organisations are understandably reluctant to uproot their workforces or to recruit new labour in a different area. However, advantage could be taken of any economic growth, inward investment, or new industries to avoid further concentration where travel-to-work difficulties and expenses are already a serious problem. So many companies claim that they need to be located in London so they are handy for other branches of the same business or to be close to government. The arguments for this are losing their force in the age of immediate global communications. Because, peculiarly, the economics of British railways currently show that unit costs have risen continuously despite massive volume growth, the long-term prospect for commuters is not looking good whatever short-term fix the government applies. Since increasing capacity is almost impossible, reducing demand is the only available option; this can be done [as now] through the price mechanism, or through the dispersal of destinations.

The government’s proposals for more flexibility in ticketing are a very good idea and should lower commuters’ costs while also inducing some changes in work patterns that will spread the demand to other times. The current system is good for when “Mr Brown goes off to town on the 8.21” five days a week, but fewer than 60% of commuters do that these days. And selling long-distance train tickets on a mix-and-match basis so that passengers can choose the best ticket for each leg of the journey should be a good move, although the train operators will no doubt moan about the loss of revenue and want to make it up on the captive side of their business.

Incidentally, Jenny, given all the nasty things you are having to stomach it’s no surprise that your breath is baited [second para], but I expect your breath is actually bated by the gob-smacking nature of the fares rises!

Two other matters might cut the cost of your commuter ticket – one is not to live so far from work, the second is to stagger working hours so the high investment in peak time trains could be spread.
I wonder how many commuters will use HS2 – presumably it is aimed at regular travellers to recoup the ludicrously high cost? Much better to spend this money on conventional rail links – contrary to the view above, there is scope to increase capacity in this way with great benefit to commuters.

Property prices are the main reason why so many people who work in metropolitan areas have to live further and further out and become captive to the train companies. Property within the London Underground commutable distance is prohibitively expensive to buy for young people and almost unaffordable to rent if you want something decent. Where people are living together and jointly funding the home, the work location issue becomes even more difficult.

I suppose the new high speed railway [HS2] will attract a number of commuters from Birmingham because journey times will be manageable despite the greater distance – our second city will move into the London Travel to Work zone and there could also be a contra-flow for any central London residents who can get a better job in Birmingham. I guess the fares issue will still be a bugbear, however.

I thought that the main purpose of HS2 was to release capacity on the existing railway lines to London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. This should free-up timetable slots for extra trains on routes from the outer suburbs north-west and north of London [e.g. Milton Keynes – London and Peterborough – London]. However that’s two decades away, I believe, by which time the trains serving many areas favoured by London workers will be running well in excess of capacity so captive commuters will be at risk of higher fares. And HS2 will do nothing for those living to the east, south-east and south of London where the lines are already electrified, can take the longest practicable trains, and are running nearly at capacity in the peaks. Changing working hours or doing more work from home might bring relief but not all employment is conducive to those measures.

I should have added that the first high speed railway in this country [HS1] between London St Pancras and Ashford in Kent – originally built for the Chanel tunnel] has brought Thanet much closer to london in journey time and led to a rise in house prices in Margate and Ramsgate among other places. It’s also done good for the Medway towns by releasing capacity on the original routes [but fares on the now inferior services have not been lowered].

Bad news for Margate and Ramsgate potential residents? It seems in these days of energy awareness, commuting 160 miles a day seems nonsense – let alone having to earn over £8000 pre-tax) a year perhaps just to pay for the basic season ticket. That’s equivalent to an £80-90k mortgage. Plus probably 5 hours a day travelling.

Gerallt Huws says:
11 October 2013

Why does Which? and its researchers consistently fail to research their topics correctly?
For the comment ‘Rail commuters across the country will be breathing a sigh of relief today, as the government has introduced …..’. This policy onl;y affects ENGLAND! However, perhaps Which? cannot distinguish between Britain and England. For they believe that there is no difference. What arrogance!

To be fair, Jennifer didn’t mention a particular country! Previous Conversations about rail fares have shown that Which? staff do know that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have devolved transport responsibilities, and that Northern Ireland [which is not part of Great Britain] runs its own railway system [NIR/Translink] under the authority of its own Assembly.

Which? does have a tendency to be metro-centric – perhaps it should be dispersed to a region where travel to work is more affordable! – but I think most Which? Conversation correspondents know that commuter whingeing is a predominantly English trait.

Hello Gerallt, we were referring to England. However, point taken, we’ve made some tweaks and an addition to mention how it differs in Scotland and Wales.

Three thoughts on commuting.

One: As a pensioner who never uses the railways, why should I be expected to subsidise those so much better off than myself who do.

Two: for forty years railways were a nationalised industry, and run down appallingly with minimal investment, and run by and for the Union Barons. Someone now has to pay to make up for that lack of investment. Why should it not be those who use the system rather than those who do not?

Three: As with the cost of electricity and gas, the cost of the raw fuel on the international market is a significant part of the cost of a ticket, and as such beyond the control of either network rail or the Train operating companies, who, incidentally, are paying handsomely for the right ot operate trains.

The above-inflation escalator on rail fares was designed to transfer more of the cost of operating the railways away from the taxpayer and onto the fare-payer. The government now senses that it has gone too far and is causing too much pain so it is changing the formula. Since increased peak-time travelling does not appear to reduce unit costs, on the face of it, making commuter journeys less unattractive seems like a move in the wrong direction from a purely economic standpoint and the balance will have to be picked up elsewhere – partly from increased off-peak travel, partly from operating economies, and partly from higher subsidies/lower franchise premiums [funded from taxation].

I think the consequences of not financially supporting the railway infrastructure from general taxation would be calamitous, in particular if more commuters took to the roads. Most commuter train services are uneconomic. While many of the train operators pay a premium to the government for the franchise to run trains on their routes, all of that and more is handed over to Network Rail to provide and maintain the track and signalling systems and run the biggest stations. The ability to organise the location of office work relative to populations has eluded successive governments and with the change from an industrial to a service economy the problems have got worse. The New Towns were intended to be self-contained residential and employment locations; today many of them are commuter dormitories.