The winter months are often a frustrating time for rail users. As the nights draw in and the days get shorter, it can seem like you spend even more precious time commuting: travelling to and from work in the dark, getting caught up in delays for baffling reasons, trying to regulate your temperature between wrapping up warm and traveling in stiflingly hot carriages.
These issues, however, pale into comparison when compared with the frustration and outright anger that rail commuters feel when on the 2nd January, like clockwork, fares increase again! As the saying goes, there’s only three things certain in life, death, taxes and more expensive train fares in January (is that right?).
The reason these annual fare increases happen like clockwork every year is thanks to the Government policy that calculates how much regulated train fares, those fares used by almost all regular commuters, increase by. Now bear with me as this is where it gets slightly complicated:
For a decade the Government used a formula which takes the Retail Price Index (RPI) and then adds 1 per cent on top. This above inflation ‘RPI+1’ method of increasing fares regularly saw some eye-watering fare increases of over 5 per cent and until this year Train Operating Companies could then add something called ‘flex’ where as much as 5 per cent could be added on top of that, meaning some fares increased by well over 10 per cent.
After some intensive campaigning by us and widespread outrage from rail users, the Government has backed down slightly. Credit where credit is due - this year they held fare increases to inflation and then in September announced that they would do the same for 2015. Whilst this is good news as fare increases will not be as steep as they could have been, train fares are still increasing - four times faster than average wages!
This is a big problem, as when fares are increasing so much faster than wages, people are still going to be hit very hard come January, despite the action Government has recently taken.
Our biggest concern, though, is for commuters who work part-time or flexibly, as this part of the labour market are hit with a double whammy of fare increases. Fares go up for everyone, but not every worker can get the benefits of a monthly or annual season ticket. Over 8 million people are now working part-time and almost 75 per cent of these are women. Many part-time workers will ask why they too cannot enjoy the fares savings that full time workers receive. With around half as many women working full time as men, the lack of flexible ticketing options currently available is not only a cost of living issue, but has now become a gender equality issue that must be put right quickly.
Working from home is also on the increase, with Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics last week showing that there are now a record 4.2 million UK home workers, amounting to 13.9 per cent of the workforce. Having the flexibility to choose to work from the office or from home is vital for a productive society. However, those who must work most flexibly but have least choice are the 1.4 million workers now on zero hours contracts, with no minimum guaranteed hours and the obligation to be available for whatever hours they’re offered. Having the option of more affordable rail tickets would be huge boost to people on these contracts.
Since the Government released their lauded Fares and Ticketing review, where they pledged to trial flexible ticketing for part time workers, there has been little or no action. Quite simply, the Government and Train Operating Companies are failing to provide ticketing options for everyone, and it’s imperative that they take action to catch up with changes in working patterns.
While the Mayor of London has realised how important this is and pledged to introduce flexible ticketing for London commuters from 2015, the Government and Train Operators have utterly failed to act and it’s the multitude of part time workers who are suffering as a result. This could be put right quickly, if the Government worked with Train Operators to introduce a stop gap measure such as carnet style ticketing across the network, allowing some much needed flexibility for part time and flexible workers, whilst longer term measures such as flexible smart ticketing are introduced similar to Transport for London’s pledges for Oyster.
Why the Government increases fares on the 2nd January, when there is nothing else in the news, perplexes many – its open season for those campaigning for affordable rail travel. What’s certain is that like clockwork we will be out on 2nd January, bright eyed and bushy tailed, getting angry about fare increases on every platform we can. Our task is to make sure this winter tradition becomes a thing of the past.
Martin Abrams is Public Transport Campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport who work for sustainable public transport that is affordable and accessible for all. They have been campaigning for affordable rail tickets for part-time workers and you can support their campaign here