Passengers have responded with outrage to the release of ‘flexible season tickets’ this week, as it has emerged that the scheme has limited value to anyone except regular two-day per week commuters.
The levels of discount on an anytime day return vary so much across the country that it’s currently impossible to quote an average; 10-15% seems to be a reasonable guess.
However, since flexi tickets replace the existing carnet system, some passengers will actually experience a fare rise; such as Grant Shapp’s own constituents in Welwyn Garden City, who’ll see an 18.5% hike from next week.
The poor value of the new ‘flexi ticket’ becomes most obvious when you compare it to existing season ticket options. In numerous examples, the set of eight tickets will only be cost-effective for regular two-day per week commuters, with monthly and even weekly season tickets working out cheaper for anyone who commutes three days per week, or simply requires more flexibility.
This is what makes it a high-risk purchase, which actually disincentivises additional travel. For example, a Brighton to London two day per week commuter would only need to add two extra work days for a monthly season ticket to have been more effective. Since there is no system of price-capping, they could end up paying far more than they needed to over the course of the month.
The short validity on the flexi ticket makes it a risky purchase in the other direction. Whereas carnet tickets had a validity of three months, the new flexi-tickets last for just 28 days. Leftover tickets can be refunded, but only at the level of an anytime day return for journeys used, plus a £10 admin fee.
There are two alternatives on how to view the flexi ticket fiasco. Is it a sign of incompetent pricing, tight-fistedness and poor policy? Or is it in fact a deliberate and manipulative price trap, the main purpose of which is to upsell passengers back to season tickets?
It’s likely that both are at play, and the outcome will depend on how much of a captive commuter market remains after COVID. What’s certain is that this issue will only worsen the existing injustice of rail fare policy, where part-time workers have long been priced out of the market, and full-time commuters already spend up to a fifth of their income on a season ticket.
Transport inequality is sure to get rapidly worse when the only captive market left will be those commuters who have to commute rather than those with the flexibility to work from home.
As the first policy roll-out of Great British Railways, the flexi ticket is an ominous sign of what’s to come from the Williams Rail Review. Despite promising an integrated and comprehensive ticketing system, London travelcards, Merseyrail, Scotland and Wales are excluded from the scheme.
And despite promising smart ticketing and price capping, fare infrastructure is still a fragmented mess; with the biggest rail franchise in the UK, Govia Thameslink Railway, requiring passengers to have a new account - using a different email address - to be able to access their flexi ticket system.
One of the Williams Review’s main aims was to ‘restore trust’ from passengers in the railway. However, it will never succeed in this objective. Like the never-ending project of UK rail fare reform, it is completely constrained by the need to be ‘revenue neutral’ meaning that the best it can ever do is rearrange the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.
As passengers fail to return to peak time commuting (the rail industry’s main source of income) there is a danger that off-peak prices will be the next thing under threat, which would only threaten further social exclusion for part-time workers. At this point, rail fare reform is more of a threat than a promise.
Emily Yates is co-founder of the Association of British Commuters.