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Railways: Saver Fares

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they have received about the withdrawal of saver fares on the railways.

My Lords, no train operator has advised the Government of any plans to withdraw saver-style flexible walk-up fares on the railways.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reassurance, as we are most concerned about the affordable walk-up market. He says that newspaper reports that saver fares are under threat are false. Does he know of any proposals to reduce the period over, or change the day on, which they are available?

My Lords, I know of no firm propositions to do so, although there is of course some flexibility with saver fares. As the noble Lord rightly says, saver fares are incredibly popular and a commercially attractive product; they account for some 50 to 60 per cent of journeys on typical inter-city routes. We all recognise their value. I do not think any train operating company worth its salt would want to dispense with them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the interests of tackling climate change, there should be no financial encouragement to take internal flights or use a motor car? Does he agree that to try to get the cheapest train fare is a lottery in comparison with which gambling on the horses is a scientific activity?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s point about encouraging people to use the railways. We should all try to use rail as much as possible. I am sometimes disturbed that we get misleading reports, comparing rail fares with air fares. On most inter-city routes, rail is the cheaper option.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the saver ticket is the bedrock of railway tickets for non-business travel? Does he further agree that flexibility is an advantage of rail travel that ought to be retained?

My Lords, I have already made it clear that we are completely at one there. I share the noble Lord’s desire to see that saver fares remain in place and operate well. They are an attractive option, ensuring that rail travel is within the scope of most people’s pockets. So yes, of course.

My Lords, much of our discussion runs contrary to what is happening. Rail fares are going up by much more than inflation each year. The Government’s policy of reducing overcrowding on trains seems to be pricing people off them. That runs contrary to our green policy debates encouraging people to take the train. Can the Minister say something about what we are going to do to keep fares at a reasonable level?

Nonsense, my Lords. The number of people on the rail network is 40 per cent higher than it was when Labour came to office. With Labour in Government, rail fares have fallen. Regulated fares have been limited to an average annual increase equal to inflation between 1995 and 1998; 1 per cent less than inflation between 1999 and 2003; and just 1 per cent more than inflation from 2004 onwards. In 2007, regulated fares are still, on average, 2 per cent lower in real terms than in 1996. Our Government can be proud of that record.

My Lords, is it not the case that the cheapest fares are unregulated, not the saver tickets? The only difficulty is that they must be bought ahead of travel, and people have difficulty finding out what is available for their journey. Does the Minister agree that much can be said for the train operators reinvigorating their publicity to make it clear that if passengers book ahead, either on the internet or by telephone, they can get some very cheap tickets? Examples on offer earlier this week for travel next week included £9.50 one way to Leeds or £12.50 to Crewe.

My Lords, the noble Lord is a veritable expert in train travel and rail fares; I would not pretend to compete with him. He makes an important point: if you book ahead—particularly using online facilities, as increasing numbers are—you can pick up some extremely good-value fare purchases. I encourage people to do exactly that.

My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to give a slightly more robust answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who asked whether the Government would encourage people to go by train rather than air or car? Does the Minister not agree that the Government interfere in our life sufficiently without doing that?

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the noble Earl is going to become an even more regular rail traveller, and that the Benches opposite are now full of those wishing to travel by rail. I would almost invite them all to put their hands up if they have taken a rail journey this week.

My Lords, I correct the Minister. He said that I was going to become a greater rail traveller than at present. I did not say that.

My Lords, the real challenge in the medium term is capacity, as the Minister mentioned. The huge increase in rail and passenger traffic is good, but it will stretch the rail network, causing prices to increase in comparison with air travel and other forms of transport. Do the Government have an answer to capacity problems in the medium term?

My Lords, we have had a massive increase in rail investment. We have so far matched the challenge, and I see us matching the challenge of the future. We predict a 30 per cent increase in rail usage over the next 10 to 15 years. We are investing more in rolling stock, the quality of which has undoubtedly improved over the past few years. It is a challenge but one that we need to meet because of all the environmental benefits which many noble Lords recognise as a virtue of the rail network.