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Rail Fares

Volume 834: debated on Monday 27 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what are their plans to simplify rail fares; and what steps they are taking to increase confidence among passengers that, when they purchase tickets, they will always receive the best value for their requirements.

My Lords, the plan for rail proposes the biggest shake-up of rail in a generation. We have already made progress on fares reform, for example, introducing flexible season tickets and delivering on our commitment to extend single-leg pricing to most of LNER’s network. We announced earlier this year that we would deliver pay-as-you-go to 53 more stations in the south-east and, through trailblazer devolution deals, pay-as-you-go pilots in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

My Lords, following the fiasco of the Government’s proposed closure of all ticket offices, which was of course resoundingly rejected by the travelling public, we urgently need decisive action to improve rail services. Great British Railways has, it seems, been kicked into the long grass but one aspect, ticketing reforms, to which the Minister’s Answer refers, could be done now throughout the whole network without legislation. The one isolated trial and the Government’s plans simply are not good enough to create the reform that is needed, to restore passengers’ trust and to improve value for money. When do the Government plan to introduce single-leg pricing and the overall reform throughout the whole network?

At the Bradshaw address, we committed to expand single-leg pricing to most of LNER’s network, and this went live on 11 June 2023. This delivers simpler, more flexible tickets that are better value. Passengers can now get the best value ticket for their journey, safe in the knowledge that a single ticket will be half the price of a return. Previously, some single tickets on LNER trains, for example, cost almost as much as a return. Single-leg pricing is much simpler, putting the price of a single ticket at around half the cost of the old return ticket.

My Lords, I am interested in the Minister’s comment. Would he care to comment on the following experience? Recently, I booked a standard return ticket on the west coast main line and was told I could not have reserved seats without trading in the tickets and buying two single ones at a cost of £25 more.

I cannot particularly comment on that one issue, but I am sorry to hear of the noble Lord’s experience and it is certainly something I will take back.

My Lords, as someone who is infrequent on the rail service, as a Londoner, when I do travel I enjoy the experience. What I have seen over the last few years is increased digitisation and more tickets being purchased online. I think we should welcome that, the ease of fares that are being seen online and the work being done by the train operating companies. Another thing I have noticed is that, as personal experience shows, if there are delays and challenges on the rail network then refunds are being offered quite easily—or advertised, at least, to be offered quite easily. The process itself, though, feels a bit more complex, because I have not yet been able to attain one of those refunds. Will the Government and my noble friend look at how we could automate refunds, to make that better for the user experience?

My noble friend makes a very good point and, as somebody who has made several applications for refunds online, it is not the simplest of processes. Indeed, for those less acquainted with computers and software, it is even more difficult. I take his point and it is something that, again, I will take back.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the Minister to the experience of evening travellers from Euston to north Wales—the Bangor and Holyhead line operated by Avanti services—who, incredibly, might find that there are no through tickets from Euston to Bangor using tickets booked in advance. If, on the same train, a ticket is purchased from Euston to Chester and another from Chester to Bangor, there is availability. Would I be unduly cynical in thinking there is some manipulation going on to try and rationalise the services?

Does the Minister recognise that as long ago as 2019 the Government accepted that there was chaos in the present rail fare structures about which something had to be done? The answer was to set up Great British Railways, which would have new powers to deal with this question. Given the urgency of getting more passengers back on the railway, given the rise in public subsidy to the railways from £4 billion to £13 billion in four years, why have the Government ducked doing this?

Not on this occasion. My Lords, we are focusing on delivering for passengers and customers by integrating new opportunities, such as, as I said earlier, the recently announced £36 billion of funding for Network North, fares and ticketing reform and improving accessibility, as well as delivering the £44 billion settlement for Network Rail to support the safe and efficient running of the network for customers between 2024 and 2029. Securing a slot for pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft rail reform Bill demonstrates the Government’s real commitment to our railways.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend to his post. I have some sympathy with him as far as rail ticketing is concerned, because everybody thinks it should be reformed if it means they get cheaper tickets. The simple fact is that as long as the Treasury has the control that it does over the rail companies, which is greater now than it has ever been, through the department, then we will not make much progress on this matter. When does he expect to see the results of LNER’s experiment? Does he think this can be rolled out more quickly than presently planned?

I hope that this can be rolled out as quickly as it possibly can be, but again, I am afraid I cannot give a definitive answer at this point.

My Lords, would the Minister join me in congratulating the RMT trade union on exposing the scale of underclaiming of compensation for delayed and cancelled trains, and the scale of profiteering by apps such as Trainline? Does he agree with the great majority of public opinion that believes it is high time that the public good was put ahead of private profit in respect of ownership of our railways?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The rail industry is in a difficult financial position. The department has spent in the region of £31 billion of taxpayers’ money. That amounts to about £1,000 per household in 2020-21 and 2021-22, since the pandemic. Reforming the rail network is critical to improve the passenger experience and to ensure the financial and operational sustainability of the railway. The industry has put forward fair and reasonable deals, offering job security and a fair pay rise. Government funding has been secured to facilitate important reforms of the railway. However, agreeing pay increases has to be linked to taking forward these important reforms.

Will my noble friend bring his undoubted acumen to bear, in addition to the rail fares, to simplifying buying tickets to park at railway stations, where you virtually need a degree in science to work it out?

I must confess, I park my car every week at a station car park to come here and I have not found any difficulty: I walk into the station, buy a ticket and put it on my windscreen. So, I am sorry to hear the noble Lord’s difficulty but, again, I will take that back.

My Lords, the Minister promises a strategy, but my noble friend’s question was about when the benefits of the LNER trial will be rolled out across the whole network. I do not think customers on the whole of the network would like the Minister simply to hope it will happen. What is the strategic objective of when it will happen?

I am not in a position to give that answer at the moment, I am afraid, but when I am, I will certainly let the House know.

My Lords, as is well known to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and to the Minister, the trains from Swansea were again late this morning. The first thing I do when I arrive, either in London or in Swansea, is fill in a claim form. Can he take this up, from his new, elevated position, with GWR?

My Lords, this is something I can speak of with great experience, as a regular traveller from Swansea to Paddington. The noble Lord is absolutely right. Recent trains have been very late and compensation has been due. I am very aware of that.