Early January means one thing to many travelers. The time of increased rail fares. This year the average increase is 5.8% which is well above the rate of inflation. But that disguises a range of price rises varying from the high to the outrageous for this year train companies can decide which fares go up or not. The government rule is that prices go up by the retail price index plus 1% apart from two lines, Southeastern and West Yorkshire where it is RPI plus 3%.
Passenger Focus, the consumer watchdog covering the railways has pointed out that a Norwich to London anytime return goes up by 14% and Canterbury to London goes by nearly 13%. But Travelmole, the online travel trade e-letter has found that a London monthly fare from Hornsey to Stevenage has gone up by 46.2% from £194.40 to £284.20 which may only be about £90 but is it over £1,000 extra a year to find.

Why should we face inflation leaping prices when many of us won’t receive pay rises this year? It is because of two features say the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). The first is that the government wants the general taxpayer to provide a smaller subsidy so that travelers pay a truer price for their journey and secondly because of a need to invest in new trains and better infrastructure. We’ve heard this poppycock for years and many would question what improvements there have been particularly given the service levels over the recent month due to the snow. What new trains and carriages? What electrification? What improved maintenance rosters so that I still have trained at the weekend? Passenger Focus says that half the people surveyed said that they didn’t consider rail travel as value for money.

To be fair though, when I checked just now, my regular single Leeds to London fare, booked in advance is still the same £30 that it has been for the last couple of months. But not all of us can plan like this.

We are told more people are traveling by train than ever before yet is it because they want to or they have to? Commuters into the major cities have the little option having just one train operating company to use. They can use a car but parking, the time it takes to travel a few miles and fuel prices make that an expensive operation. What happened to getting cars off the road and promoting public transport as a green alternative? What happened to cut down on congestion. Yes, these are old arguments, well rehearsed and trotted out over the years but still relevant. There were two fairly lame interviews this morning, one on Sky with Christian Wolmar, the rail expert and the other on BBC Breakfast with Ashwan Kumar of Passenger Focus and Michael Roberts of ATOC which used some of the arguments but provided no new ideas or advice to travelers.
Railways are used for holidays, day trips, short breaks and are an important feature of tourism. Make them unviable and numbers will drop and there will be the clamor to close lines and save money. That leads to revenue and visitor decline in parts of the country where economic regeneration is needed.
So here are some alternative suggestions which may be new but probably aren’t.

  1. Every railway franchise area should have at least two train operating companies working the lines. Competition could help
  2. If that idea is unacceptable break the day into 24 one hour units and let the train companies bid for which hours of the day they want to operate trains in. They cannot be awarded two consecutive hour-long periods so that the fares from 7-8am should be different from 8-9am which would allow commuters and travelers to decide which company they travel with.
  3. Treat stations like airports. Rail companies bid for slots and if A gets the 8 am from Manchester to Newcastle, there would be nothing (other than platform availability) to stop B running an 8.05 on the same route.
  4. Nationalise the whole rail network and treat it as infrastructure for economic regeneration and use some of the sums wasted at the old regional development agencies as an investment. Market the rail network abroad as a viable linked-up alternative for getting around with more 7 day passes, 14-day passes and books of £10 vouchers which only cost £7.50 each and which could be used to buy tickets.
  5. Use underused stations like Bradford Forster Square, Harrogate, Gloucester and Perth so that there can be alternative services like the Cheltenham-Maesteg one 5 Stop buck-passing between government and the rail operating companies.

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Travel Rumblings

In the travel press, there are always stories about loyalty. There are loyalty cards for airlines, hotels, car hire companies which the average person probably doesn’t bother with. The loyalty cards that mean most to us are those that come from Tesco, Sainsbury and Boots because those are places that we use a lot. There isn’t anything from tour operators, surprisingly, because we may only use them once or twice a year. No, the National Trust membership or something like that has more appeal.

But what about trains?

We use them for getting to work, days out, weekends away and even forgetting to summer holiday destinations. Eurostar operates a loyalty scheme but what of mainline domestic railway companies? Apart from youth passes, over 55 tickets at slack times of the year and senior passes that just reward age, is there anything else?

Meet “Escape” from East Coast railways, described as the exclusive rewards programme for their customers that travel the most. Now I, and quite a few colleagues, use East Coast quite often to go between London and Leeds, York and sometimes Newcastle, Durham and Edinburgh. What might we get if we sign up?

The short answer is nothing because we don’t fulfil the criteria. We have to have spent £1,800 on tickets in any 3 month period. By my reckoning despite the fact that I have travelled 3 times to Leeds, 3 times to York, once to Durham and once to Doncaster, I haven’t even hit the £500 mark. I certainly don’t go first class and I book in advance so I rarely pay more than £60 per return. So this is not for me. Even if three of us added all our travel together, we wouldn’t make £1,800. It is the equivalent of spending about £150 each and every week. And you can’t use standard season tickets (only 1st class), travelcards or rail rovers to count towards the magical £1,800! I would be surprised if there are many takers to this appealing offer.

And even if you qualify and join what benefits are available? Access to a first class lounge (where there is one) plus a complementary drink and snack. And here is the clincher. If I buy a two-course meal in the restaurant car I will get free, and at no additional expense, a whole quarter bottle of wine! Well, say no more. What else could one ask for? Well 20% off tickets. But if I get 20% off, I’ll have to spend even more to get to my £1,800 threshold or lose out. From day one, it looks as the East Coast want to remove passengers from “Escape” rather than add them.

Obviously this loyalty plan is designed to reward very very few. And if that’s the case, is there any point to it? The vast majority of us will get nothing for our loyalty. But then what choice do we have? If I want to go to Leeds from London, I either use East Coast or some connecting service that adds to the time. So maybe there will be no loyalty schemes for average passengers until we get true competition on railway lines.