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Flexible Rail Ticketing

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

The covid pandemic, unknown to the world nine months ago, has required businesses, people and the Government to make huge and rapid changes to the way we live our lives with a speed that was unthinkable before coronavirus struck. Nightingale hospitals were constructed within days and quickly made capable of accommodating hundreds of ventilated patients. Supermarkets doubled their capacity for online deliveries.

The Government introduced the coronavirus job retention scheme and, within days, were paying the wages of 4 million employees. Advice was given that those who could should work from home, which gave rise to an instant leap in the take-up of video conferencing through services such as Zoom, and introduced millions of people to the previously unexperienced sensation of being exhausted by staring at a screen all day.

For all the tragedies and privations of the last few months, it has been a time of agility and innovation in the way that we do things. Yet through this period of the most tumultuous change that any of us has experienced during our lifetimes, one thing that has proved impervious to alteration—a monument to inflexibility—is the railway season ticket.

If my constituents in Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms and Paddock Wood take a Southeastern train to work in London, they face the same bill of fare that they have had since the 1950s. They have to buy either a seven-days-a-week season ticket from Southeastern or daily tickets at the highest fare for the journey, with no discount for frequent and regular travellers.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. I bring to his attention something that has been coming to me. For many students, especially in my constituency and his constituency, but in other constituencies as well, the commute to university is essential. If they are put in lockdown, they lose weeks on their railcard. As airlines have been flexible, so must rail and other transport providers be.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that it is not only workers who commute. Many students commute into the capital and, indeed, other cities around the country—and, I dare say, in Northern Ireland—so I am grateful for his point.

To turn to the economics of the situation, a standard class season ticket from Tunbridge Wells costs £4,928 a year, which is a large amount of money. The price of a daily standard peak return ticket is £39.90. That means that someone travelling three days a week to London for 47 weeks of the year must pay £5,626. In other words, it costs over £700 more to travel three days a week than five or even seven days a week. It is a ludicrous anachronism and an outrageous injustice that we have the same fare structure for workers in 2020 as we did in 1950.

There are many reasons why that is no longer tolerable. First, even before covid, the pattern of working life had changed since the 1950s. Many people work fewer than five days a week from a workplace in a city centre. Either they work part time or they do not need to travel every day. How can our railways not have noticed a change that has been happening for decades?

Secondly, people who work part time usually earn less money than people who work full time. To penalise the poorest workers is a regressive policy that adds to poverty and is a barrier to work.

Thirdly, more women than men work, or wish to work, part time. The standard fare policy means that it costs them more to do so. As pay is still not equal, a further obstacle to accessing good jobs and careers is thrown up in front of women by a fare system that can make it too costly to take up opportunities. The same is true, but worse, for disabled people and people as they get older.

Fourthly, the fare structure flies in the face of the advice that the Government are currently giving to curb the spread of covid, which says, “Work from home if you can”. For many people, that means going into the office less, perhaps for important meetings or to train newer and younger colleagues, and working from home more. That pattern is not supported if it is cheaper to travel five days a week than three days.

Fifthly, the fare system hampers our recovery from the economic consequences of covid. Our businesses and their staff need to be flexible and adaptive. Instead, working patterns will be formed not by what is ideal for the business and the worker, but to conform to an antiquated fare system.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rail operators must act responsibly during the pandemic to ensure that passengers do not have to choose between a journey on an overcrowded train and paying the top rates for anytime travel tickets? On the west coast line, for example, travel between London and Stoke-on-Trent rises from £53 to £129 after 3 pm, and only returns to £53 at 7 pm, when the trains are packed. Surely a temporary suspension of peak fares while the country is in a national health emergency is the right thing to do to protect rail travellers.

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a time in which we must display the same flexibility, innovation and responsiveness that we have—and have had to—in so many other areas of life, and that we should not be bound by the structures that we inherited.

It is time now to make this change. It does not have to be this way. If we can bring in a job retention scheme within days of the need being identified, if we can invent a scheme in July to help thousands of restaurants attract back millions of customers in August, and if businesses can switch to conducting meetings online virtually overnight, surely we are more than capable of introducing without further procrastination a train ticket to meet the needs of part-time and flexible workers. There is no shortage of models available: a ticket that allows any three days in seven, for example; a ticket that permits travel only 12 days in a month; or, at the most basic, a carnet system that gives a discount on the purchase of multiple peak-time tickets to be used within a limited period.

At the end of July, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) wrote, along with all Kent MPs, to the managing director of Southeastern, Mr Statham. He replied that Southeastern has submitted proposals for flexible ticketing to the Department for Transport and is waiting for the Department’s authorisation under the emergency measures agreement. I say to the Minister: please act now. As the Transport Secretary said last week, we are in a different era. The Government are—which is to say, we are—paying for the railway. With these covid-changed circumstances, very few people are going to be paying for an annual seven-days-a-week ticket at any time soon. That money is simply not coming in.

For years I have been hearing from constituents who are desperate for part-time season tickets. The right hon. Gentleman is making some brilliant points on this issue. I have been speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi)—our shadow Rail Minister—and he is in agreement with me. With the job market about to be reeling for years in a post-covid environment, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must do everything and anything they can, such as allowing part-time season tickets, or at least thinking about doing so, to allow businesses to create new jobs and accommodate flexible, part-time working?

As I have said, this problem has persisted for too long and we need to catch up with the 21st century, but now is a particular moment to make that reform, so that people can go back to work according to the needs of their employer while also respecting the advice to stay and work at home where possible.

In contrast to a full season ticket for five or seven days a week, a flexible commuting ticket is likely to be bought by commuters here and now, and could actually increase revenue to the railway and the taxpayer while fighting covid by supporting people not going into the office every day. It would also provide a long-overdue journey of the railway fare system to a rendezvous with working life in the 21st century.

I suspect that the Minister, whose talents I admire, will be briefed to buy time and say that these things must be examined in greater detail, but my admiration for him extends to the knowledge that he has embraced his portfolio with enthusiasm and ambition. He does not need to be a captive of the standard advice on this subject that has been given out for years; he can make a difference during the next few weeks ahead. He will go down in railway history as one of the reformers if he is the Minister who brings railway ticketing into modern times—and I urge him to do it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) is very kind but compliments sometimes, as I think a Canadian said, “doth butter no parsnips”.

I shall do my best to explain the Government’s position on this, but I first congratulate him on securing this debate on the plans for future flexible season tickets and rail ticketing, and I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have made contributions this evening.

Transport affects most, if not all, of the people in the Chamber today, and it is an area that the Government are committed to improving. Members present are all well aware that improving our rail network is at the heart of the Government’s plans to build back better and to boost Britain’s economy coming out of the pandemic. The Government are investing record levels in rail funding to deliver the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century. In fact, we are spending £48 billion—a statistic I repeat ad nauseam to everybody I meet—between 2019 and 2024 to improve rail services for passengers and freight customers, while maintaining current high levels of safety and reliability.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells will also know that in the Prime Minister’s address of 22 September, he emphasised the importance of taking steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The Government encourage those who can work from home to do so, and we continue to advise passengers to consider active travel alternatives such as walking and cycling.

To ensure the safety of those who need to use public transport, we have issued comprehensive guidance on the steps that operators should take to access and address the risks of coronavirus in the transport sector across England. The rail industry has implemented measures to give passengers confidence in travelling by rail, from enhanced cleaning to redesigned station flows that facilitate social distancing wherever possible; and from the provision of additional staff and the installation of face covering vending machines at key stations to volunteers welcoming people to stations to remind them to wear their face coverings.

The Government also announced on 21 September that we have extended support to keep trains running through the pandemic and ended rail franchising. Emergency recovery measures agreements—or ERMAs, as they are more commonly known—place operators on far more demanding management agreements, with tougher performance targets and lower fees than the previous emergency measures agreements. Those fees are a maximum of 1.5% of the cost base of the franchise before the pandemic began. To help comply with current and changing public health guidance, we have also asked operators to run an almost full capacity service to ensure that there is space to help passengers travel safely, and socially distanced where possible, to continue to combat the threat of covid-19.

Looking forward to the post-covid recovery, we need to build a rail network that is fit for the future. To deliver this, we are placing some focus on punctuality and performance, investing massively in infrastructure to level up the country, and indeed considering how we can provide simpler, more flexible ticketing to deliver a better deal for passengers and one that works in the new environment that they will be travelling in.

Southeastern continues to deliver for passengers, recording 93.2% in the latest public performance measure of punctuality, with 83% of journeys rated as satisfactory or good in the national rail passenger survey in spring this year. It also offers a range of products that passengers can choose to buy to suit their own requirements. As my right hon. Friend said, Southeastern has a Key smartcard, which allows tickets to be downloaded from home through an app, but it does not offer, at this point, a flexible season ticket.

For the commuter, season tickets are still a great way to save on travel and they are available on the smartcard, as I said. It is worth someone buying a season ticket if they make the same journey three times a week or more. “Early bird” discounted season tickets are also available for early morning commuters travelling into London from some areas in Kent, providing even greater value for money.

My right hon. Friend will know that flexible season ticketing has long been an ambition of this Government. Progress has been made, with many train operators around the country having launched flexible products that can provide passengers who work or commute part time with a better deal, which is obviously important to this Government. The operators c2c, Chiltern Railways, East Midlands Railway, Gatwick Express, Greater Anglia, Northern, South Western Railway, Govia Thameslink Railway and West Midlands Railway are all offering some form of flexible season ticket or carnet on at least some of their services. However, as my right hon. Friend knows, flexible season tickets are not yet available across all train services, and the level of discount and terms and conditions of these tickets can vary between operators. I appreciate that the lack of availability of flexible season tickets might be frustrating for some passengers.

The pandemic has, of course, led to a lot fewer rail journeys being made. The Office for National Statistics reported that 32% of Great Britain’s working population are working at home for at least some of the time. The Government recognise, as everyone does, that the pandemic is likely to cause a fundamental change in commuting patterns in the future, and that is likely to have long-term effects on commuter behaviour.

My hon. Friend read out a tantalising list of rail operators offering some form of flexible ticketing to commuters, but as he said, that is not available to Southeastern customers. Can he explain why?

I will happily explain why in a moment.

Fares and ticketing need to evolve to meet the needs of modern-day passengers, to support those people who want to work from home more often in the future and to provide a flexible and affordable ticket to allow commuters and others the freedom to travel into work when it suits them to discuss ideas in the office, grab a coffee with colleagues or socialise in our towns and cities.

To deliver that, we have been working proactively with the rail industry, including train operators and the Rail Delivery Group, to try to ensure better value and convenience for part-time and flexible commuters. In June, we sought proposals from the train operating companies, such as the one outlined by my right hon. Friend, and those were received by the Department over the summer. My officials are in the process of carefully considering the proposals, ensuring that they will offer value for money, give passengers what they want, be deliverable and work for the future. We will continue to consider these proposals, balancing better deals for passengers with the cost to taxpayers.

We obviously have to get the approval of Her Majesty’s Treasury for such a scheme. As a former Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend will understand that the taxpayer is spending a tremendous sum of money on maintaining a rail service that is clean, reliable and resilient, and allows people to travel, where possible, in a socially distanced manner. As Government guidance changes to reflect the situation we find ourselves in, the rail industry also has to change its plans.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Once a Treasury Minister, always a Treasury Minister, and the bill for the industry and for all the support being provided will have to be met. He gave a list—described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Grey Clark) as “tantalising”—of rail franchises operating a flexible system. The Harrogate line operates such a system through a carnet: passengers can buy 10 tickets and pay for nine. The pattern of commuting will be fundamentally different after we recover from the coronavirus, so in planning for the long term, will this be built into franchises or whatever model we see when we return to a more normal mode of operation?

As a former rail Minister, my hon. Friend knows the lovely conversations that are had between Departments about these sorts of things. We are keen to introduce flexible ticketing throughout the system where possible, but it is quite difficult to judge what would be the right product to tempt commuters back to our railways before we know how we will extract ourselves from a second peak of the pandemic.

We know that there is much interest among passengers in these products, including from the representations that Members have made directly to the Department, but we need to look in detail at important and complex issues such as pricing, impacts on revenue and whether these proposals are properly future-proofed before launching them. We cannot say at this stage what the longer-term impact of the covid-19 pandemic will be on commuter behaviours, and we need to ensure that any steps we take now can flex and adapt to changing circumstances.

Of course, these are unusual and unprecedented circumstances and timing is extremely important. As I have said, we are currently advising office workers who can work effectively from home to do so. However, we also need to ensure that our rail network is ready to adapt and able to provide good value and convenient options for those now wishing to travel, and especially for those who wish to come back to our network in the future when they can, to help support the recovery of our town and city economies. We also know that there are still many people, such as our key workers, who rely on the trains to get to their place of work right now. That is why our immediate focus is on ensuring that we keep the railway available and safe for those who require it, within the covid measures that I set out earlier.

We are talking to Southeastern in many ways, and I completely understand, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells does, how important the railway is for so many people in his constituency. He has highlighted the need for more flexible rail ticketing to cater for changed commuting patterns, and I reassure him and the House that we are actively working with the rail industry to develop proposals to meet that need and ensure that the railway is fit for the future. We want to ensure that we enable operators to offer the right range of tickets to improve the lives of commuters around the country, including those in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and I hope that I will be able to come to the House at some point in the near future to update it on our progress.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.