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Railways: Fares

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 31 January 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have conducted any comparison of the level of railway fares in the United Kingdom compared with those in countries elsewhere in Europe.

My Lords, the most recent major study that included comparisons of the level of railway fares in Europe was published by Passenger Focus. It showed that, although the overall picture is mixed, Great Britain compares favourably with other European countries in respect of many ticket types, particularly on longer-distance tickets purchased in advance. The study compared some other factors, such as frequency of commuter services into major cities, in which Great Britain also compared favourably.

Does the Minister agree that, although the fares are supposed to go up by RPI plus one, there are countless incidents of fares rising by much more than that—for example 9% from Sevenoaks to London. Will he ensure, and also ask his right honourable friend to ensure, that, when a cap is placed on fares, it is a cap that people can understand? The majority of people do not understand the way in which the fares baskets are compiled, which allows such breaches of common sense and of what is commonly understood.

My Lords, I agree that it must be difficult for ordinary passengers to understand how ticket pricing works. The increase in regulated fares is implemented by train operators as an average across a basket of fares. This flexibility allows some fares to be increased by up to 5%—although only 2% on Southern—more than the average, while other fares must increase by much less or even be held flat to comply with the regulated average.

Does the Minister agree that this largely synthetic row about rail fare increases takes place every year around new year, when there is not much bad news elsewhere? The British media love bad news, and it provides them with an annual story. Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree with the figures that show that fares for travelling by train have increased in real terms by about 20% over the past decade, while the cost of motoring has reduced by 5% over that period? Are there not some inconsistencies here in government policy?

My Lords, first, the relative prices of motoring and travelling by rail vary up and down. The comparison does vary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State asked exactly the same question as the noble Lord about the timing of rail fare increases—and he was not amused.

My Lords, I know how much my noble friend supports HS2. The business case for HS2 is not predicated on premium fares.

My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister takes a patronising attitude to what the public understand. The public understand fare increases quite clearly. The National Audit Office warned that if excessive fare increases occurred they would merely be reflected in higher profits for the train operating companies. The Prime Minister said that fares should not go up by more than 1% above inflation—in other words, 4.2%. How does the Minister justify fare increases of 9%?

My Lords, a fare increase of 9% can arise where you have the RPI plus one, plus the flexibility that is necessary in order that train operating companies can adjust their fares to suit changing conditions. For instance, let us suppose there was a new shopping centre in an adjacent town. It might be desirable to adjust the pricing structure to reflect that. If there were no flexibility, train operators would not be able to adjust their price structure but would have to stick with an old system.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that the main obstacle for many young people searching for employment is the cost of transport, especially since the discounted fares come in after 9.30 am and they might have to get to an interview by 9 am? Will the Minister take this up with the train operators, to see whether there might be more acceptable means of providing cheaper transport for young people?

My noble friend makes an important point. The Government recognise that, for those starting their employment career, being able to travel economically to work is important. My noble friend will be aware that a fares review is currently under way, looking at all aspects of the fares structure.

My Lords, fares payable on the day of travel are invariably far more expensive than advance travel tickets. On what basis are the European comparisons that the Minister referred to being made: the former or the latter?

The noble Lord asks a good question. Just walking up to Euston and buying a ticket is very expensive, and we do not compare well with our continental partners. However, when we look at advanced purchases, we compare quite well. One day, I wanted to go to the NEC to visit the motor show and I could not afford the walk-on fare; it was too expensive for me.

My Lords, on another item of major annoyance to rail users, will the Government encourage the installation of more quiet coaches on all long routes, to follow the excellent example of Virgin Trains, which bans mobile phones in the quiet coaches?

My Lords, this is largely a matter for the train operating companies. The difficulty for them is enforcing the quiet carriage rules. I like a quiet carriage, but some people do not adhere to the rules.

My Lords, the Minister is right to draw attention to the availability of advanced tickets, which represent decent value for money in the great majority of cases. Does he share my irritation when one discovers that it is cheaper to buy tickets for a journey by buying two or three tickets rather than a through ticket?

My Lords, I was not aware of that particular anomaly, but I hope that the fares review will look at that.