The Centre for Policy Studies has warned “there is no going back to the old world” despite taxpayers paying £16bn to keep trains running during coronavirus. The centre-right think tank said a simpler, fairer and more flexible ticketing system - with peak fares scrapped - is required as part of measures to avoid a spiral of decline and underinvestment in the nation’s railways.
Report author Tony Lodge said: “The pandemic fundamentally changed the nature of rail in the UK. The Government has the opportunity – through the new Great British Railways body – to radically overhaul the current model to make sure that it is fit for purpose and able to meet modern passenger demands.
“Frankly, if the Government doesn’t implement these reforms, there is no certainty that rail will have a future and taxpayers will inevitably be forced to foot the bill for its decline.”
His report said: “Today there are more than 2,700 different ticket types, more than 1,000 unique ticket names and over 600 restrictions.
“We need ticketing to be far simpler, far more flexible on prices – including the abolition of the peak/off-peak divide – and far more digital.”
By the last three months of 2021, rail travel had returned to over 60 per cent of the pre-pandemic peak with 285 million journeys made.
But the nature of travel has drastically shifted - with work being the reason for just half of train journeys compared to the two-thirds level it was before Covid struck.
Commuter journeys are just 45 per cent what they were in 2019 and the report said “five-day peak hour commuting – Monday to Friday – can be calculated to be around just 15 per cent of the previous total and there is no evidence this once lucrative market will ever return”.
It added: “Most commuting now takes place Tuesday to Thursday; Mondays are 20 per cent lower and Fridays are 50 per cent lower than before the pandemic. Unless the railways can adapt to the new travelling environment, we risk a spiral of decline and underinvestment. Fares will rise further to cover operating losses, driving more people on to the roads, cutting passenger numbers, forcing fares to rise further.
“Even then, there is no guarantee that the Treasury will be willing to swallow the losses from running the railways on a far lower userbase indefinitely, raising the prospect of a second Beeching Axe being swung further down the line.”
But the report said there is now a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for a new approach from the Government and backed the idea of a ‘Rail Miles’ loyalty programme to access cheaper fares.
It said: "It should be accepted in this new world that someone will travel for leisure but work during the journey. One excellent suggestion is that,
whether they are travelling for work or leisure, passengers should be able to earn and claim ‘Rail Miles’, which could be redeemed for future cheap travel, on-board refreshments and upgrades. This will help deliver new rail users and encourage and reward passenger loyalty."
The report argues for greater competition between rail operators - highlighting that the multiple companies serving Yorkshire to London routes on East Coast Main Line - have recovered higher passenger numbers than those with unchallenged franchises in the south.
It said: “Even before the pandemic, it was clear – and widely accepted – that the ECML experiment has led to more passengers, lower fares, more choice, more routes served, happier passengers, more revenue and greater connectivity, which complements the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.”
The report said such competition should be encouraged and should also be made into a feature of HS2.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “It’s absolutely right to say that the railways need reforming”.
He added: “The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is already rolling out the biggest changes to rail in a generation. We’re replacing the complicated franchising system, helping deliver better services for passengers, and have already electrified over 1200 miles of track since 2010.
“We also committed an unprecedented £16bn of taxpayer support as life-support throughout the pandemic to keep the network running, and this cannot continue as we make the railways the backbone of a cleaner, more environmentally friendly and modern public transport system.”
Council leader calls for reintroduction of services
The leader of Bradford Council has called on Northern to reinstate rail services as soon as possible after cuts introduced on Sunday.
Northern’s new timetable, which includes reduced services between Bradford and Shipley, Ilkley and Skipton.
Earlier this year Northern bosses said the reduced services were “short term” and due to problems resourcing existing services.
Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe yesterday reiterated her opposition to timetable.
She and West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin have met with Northern to seek assurances that services will be restored by the end of the year at the latest, if not sooner.
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