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Rail Fares

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

No specific assessment has been made of the effect on jobseekers by my Department. The Department for Work and Pensions has a scheme in place to assist jobseekers. Jobcentre Plus issues a discount card to eligible jobseekers to help them travel more cheaply on train services to job interviews and for vocational training. The card offers a 50% discount on a wide variety of fares including London travelcards.

A previous Conservative Secretary of State advised people to get on their bike to find work; it seems that the Department for Transport has taken that advice to heart given the rapid increases in rail fares, particularly over the next two years. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will now allow train companies to increase fares by as much as 8% above inflation over the next two years, and will she at least consider limiting the cost for those people in constituencies such as mine for whom this is very difficult?

This Government are determined to get the costs of running the railways down. We have a plan for delivering that—a plan that has been opposed by Labour Members, who have provided no ideas themselves on how we deal with this problem. We are determined to deliver better value for money for passengers. That is why we are going to get the cost of running the railways down.

Jobseekers and workers from my constituency travel regularly by train to London and elsewhere in the south-east and the wider introduction of smart ticketing should help to reduce their travel costs. Can the Minister update the House on plans to extend smart ticketing across the south-east, funding for which was announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement?

We believe that introducing smart ticketing across more of our national network is a very important way to improve services for passengers to make ticket-buying easier and more convenient and also as a way to assist our efforts to get better value for money for passengers and in terms of reducing the costs of running the railways. That is why we have allocated funding to projects to deliver smart ticketing in the south-east and why we are funding the interaction of ITSO with Oyster in London. We are determined that the sort of benefits that people have enjoyed with Oyster in London for many years can start to be enjoyed across a wide range of services across the national network.

The Government’s plans for the future of the rail service include the statement that Ministers wish to withdraw or reduce rail subsidies. What impact would this have on rail fares?

What we want to do is get the cost of running the railways down so we take the pressure off fares and off the taxpayers’ subsidy. We need to be fair to both the groups that fund the railways and it is vital that we go forward with our programme to give better value for money and eliminate the inefficiency in the railways that arose under Labour’s term of office. In its term of office, fares rose and inefficiency increased dramatically in the railways.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Opposition said they would cap train fares this year by the retail prices index plus 1%, but where Labour is in control, in Wales, it has maintained the 5% flex element. Is this not just another case of the Opposition saying one thing but doing another?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot believe a word Labour says on fares. The Leader of the Opposition stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the fares basket flexibility was an outrage, yet the Labour Administration in Cardiff are still using it. When it comes to Ken Livingstone, we cannot believe a word he says either on fares.

Does the Minister understand that many people who are out of work do not have easy access to the internet and rely on the help and advice of staff to ensure they get the cheapest fare, which is not always clearly advertised or available at ticket machines? Can the Minister confirm whether it is Ministers or train companies who are responsible for the decision to close many of these vital ticket offices?

The hon. Lady should give me an example of these closures, because I have to say they are not happening. No decisions have been made on possible changes to the way that ticket offices are regulated and we are going to be looking at this issue as part of our efforts to drive efficiency in the railways, but before any decisions are taken we will think very carefully about the impact on all rail users, including the disabled, those who are jobless and those with visual impairments. This is a very important issue to get right and part of the way we will deal with it is by expanding the smart ticketing and alternative ticket-buying opportunities we have discussed this morning.

That is an interesting answer. The Minister seems to be out of touch with what is happening in her own Department. I have here a leaked e-mail, dated just two weeks ago, from the civil servant responsible for the rail fares and ticketing review. It says that

“the Minister has already decided to approve some ticket office closures (it’s just not been announced yet…)…there will be more of those in future.”

What is worse, she then admits that Ministers plan to pin the blame for the closures on the train companies, saying,

“your way of slipping in there that the initiative comes from TOCs not us is very neat”.

Will the Minister now own up and admit that she has already given the green light to these closures, which passengers will find not “very neat” but very inconvenient and very expensive?

The shadow Secretary of State refers to the proposal from London Midland, which is being considered but on which no final decision has been made.