Part-time commuters are set to be denied similar discounts to full-time season tickets because of fears that this could undermine a key revenue stream, Transport Network has learned.
Currently, passengers regularly travelling three days a week or less – mainly women – pay significantly more per journey than season ticket holders, because rail firms are not offering flexible or part-time season tickets with worthwhile discounts, despite a longstanding government promise to introduce them.
The cost of daily peak time tickets is so high that commuters travelling three days a week are often advised to buy full-time seasons. Last year train operating companies submitted proposals for ‘flexiseasons’ to the Department for Transport but the process appears to have stalled.
Rail industry sources have said any new products are unlikely to replicate the format and discounts of full-time season tickets because of fears that this could tempt commuters away from them, as well as discouraging workers from returning full-time to city centres.
Transport Network has learned that current industry proposals involve an extension of carnet-style tickets, where passengers pay for a fixed number of journeys in advance. These have been widely criticised for the small discounts they provide – currently no higher than 10% on costly peak time tickets.
An industry source said the level of discount and issues such as validity and number of journeys – likely to be between 10 and 20 – are still being worked up.
However, even this is meeting resistance from within Government, with the Department for Transport (DfT) enthusiasm being countered by scepticism from within No 10 and the Treasury.
Both the Government and the industry appear reluctant to offer part-time season tickets that mirror full-time deals, particularly as annual tickets. This reflects fears that such tickets could undermine full-time seasons but also practical complications such as how such a product would allow additional journeys to be made.
Last year GWR announced plans for ‘three days in seven' tickets, which appeared go beyond the carnet model, although the firm declined to disclose the level of discount to be offered or the duration of the ticket.
However, the proposals appear to have got tied up with industry proposals for carnet-style tickets.
Annual seasons, often purchased at the beginning of the calendar year, are seen as the bread and butter of the rail industry and have traditionally allowed firms to plan their operations and expenditure for the year ahead. The level of discount reflects the significant financial commitment made by passengers.
Although it is recognised that cheaper part-time travel could tempt workers back onto trains after the pandemic, the concern is that they might also prove popular not only with part-time travellers who currently pay over the odds but also those who previously travelled to work full-time, thereby reducing demand.
Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, told Transport Network: 'A fair deal means offering part-time commuters equivalent discounts to those enjoyed by full-time commuters. It's disingenuous to offer them a paltry discount in the hope that they'll buy a full-time season ticket instead when they really don't need one.
'It's also risky, because many of those part-time commuters will judge that the train is unaffordable and get in their cars instead, boosting traffic levels, air pollution and carbon emissions - and harming ticket revenue.'
So far the best discount offered by a carnet has been ten anytime day return tickets for the price of nine offered by Northern Rail in conjunction with Transport for the North (TfN).
However, this does little to bridge the gap with even the shortest duration of season ticket. With anytime day returns from Leeds to Manchester Piccadilly costing £34.80, a passenger travelling three days a week is better off buying a weekly season ticket for £84.10. (A Northern Rail-only weekly season ticket is available at £68.60, which is less than the cost of two daily tickets.)
Making this journey 10 times using two weekly season tickets would cost £168.20. This compares with a 10-day carnet ticket priced at £313.20.
A spokesperson for Northern said: ‘We know that the ways in which people commute are changing and as a result we're developing innovative ticketing options that meet our customers' changing needs.’
In line with Government policy, TfN plans to roll out flexi-season tickets this year ‘for those travelling less than five days a week’.
However, a spokesperson for TfN told Transport Network that these products are likely to be ‘fundamentally the same’ as the Northern carnet product - an ITSO smartcard-based product, which provides a bundle of discounted tickets, albeit with the exact bundle and validity period varying slightly between operators.
As Transport Network has reported, Government funding for TfN’s Integrated and Smart Travel programme is set to end in March.
Flexible season tickets are likely to be facilitated by ‘smart card’ technology and the expansion of ITSO standard ticket gates, as well as the eventual expansion of the type of contactless pay as you go (PAYG) system used by Transport for London.
In a letter to TfN chief executive Barry White, Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly tacitly acknowledged that a wider PAYG roll-out is some way off.
She wrote: ‘The Department will be considering cost-effective delivery models and funding streams to roll out PAYG to urban and regional commuter areas, as part of wider rail reforms.’
A source said the industry ‘continues to push government on allowing PAYG’ across the network.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train companies, has linked flexible ticketing to the need for reform of ticketing regulation. Issues such as the need for tickets to be purchased before travel and for paper equivalents of electronic tickets to be available are said to be barriers.
A spokesperson for the RDG told Transport Network: ‘The pandemic has put rocket boosters under people’s already changing working patterns and we’ve long been saying that rail fares need to change to keep up.
‘We submitted proposals on flexible tickets in July, and we’re keen to work with the Government to introduce them as soon as possible.’
Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, said: ‘When travel restrictions are lifted it’s important the industry is able to attract people back by offering fares that match how we know people hope to live, work and travel in future. This could mean new flexible season tickets which offer better value for part-time commuters, and other tickets based on how people want to use the railway.’