Rail season tickets, a Southeastern manager once told me ruefully, are a “classic grudge purchase”. Passengers resent paying for them, however much they are, and only ever notice the things that go wrong when they’re using the service.
He probably had a point. Getting to and from work every day is an experience we endure, often through gritted teeth, rather than enjoy, and the only thing we care about is getting it over as quickly as possible. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Southeastern’s tannoy announcement at the end of the morning commute asking if “we’ve had a pleasant journey” just a bit misplaced. No, it isn’t fun or pleasant, is unlikely ever to be so, so please stop asking.
Yet, it sometimes feels as though the rail industry is doing its level best to get on the wrong side of its passengers. The latest round of fare increases is just such an example. If, like me you get the train to St Pancras every day and buy a monthly ticket, you’ll be facing a 3% price increase this month. For me that’s £411 a month, and that doesn’t include any tube or bus journeys at the other end. That’s a big slice of anyone’s income. Someone living in Gravesham on an average wage, which according to government statistics is now around £480 before tax, would have to shell out almost 20% of their monthly income for the privilege of commuting to St Pancras. For more or less the same money you could rent a perfectly good one bedroom flat in Gravesend. And when the cost of commuting begins to rival some monthly rents, you know something isn’t right.
If, following the rebuilding of Gravesend station, Southeastern had put on longer trains in and out of St Pancras to ease overcrowding at peak hours, particularly in the early evening (the 18.16 service to Maidstone can be particularly gruesome) this might have sugared the pill a bit. But, according to the company, there are no plans at all to do this at the moment. In other words, if you’re a St Pancras commuter, you’re not going to see many benefits from the £19 million Gravesend station upgrade.
The situation for commuters travelling to London Bridge and Charing Cross isn’t much better. Yes, there is the benefit of longer trains now being available following the upgrade, but it comes at a cost. The standard monthly season ticket to Charing Cross is now £304, a hefty price which would absorb almost 15% of the average Gravesend wage.
So far, rail commuters have proved remarkably tolerant of these escalating costs. Yes, there has been grumbling about the scale of the annual increases, which have comfortably outstripped wage increases in recent years, and the level of profits going to rail shareholders. Yet, we’ve paid up and got on with life, seeing it as an inevitable feature of life in South East England. But with wages barely increasing each year, and the cost of other essential services such as gas and electricity rising sharply, something has to give in the end.
So what can be done? The government insists that days when it subsidised a lion’s share of the costs of running the rail network are over, and that rail passengers, many of whom are high earners, are going to have to foot more of the bill in the future. Yet, caricaturing rail commuters as a wealthy minority who can easily afford the increases, is just that; a convenient caricature. An area like Gravesham is heavily reliant on London for its jobs and continued prosperity. Some of the 4,000 people who routinely travel to work by rail from the town are well off. But there are also many who are only just making ends meet at the moment who can ill afford to find an extra £10 or £15 a month to get to work.
One change I’d like Southeastern to consider is the introduction of a ‘carnet’ ticket. As a season ticket holder at the moment, you’re paying to use the service every day and you won’t get a refund if you happen to be ill, on holiday or decide to work at home. And if you work part-time two or three days a week and don’t have a season ticket, you have to fork out the full fare if you travel during the peak.
A carnet ticket, which is in essence a book of reduced price tickets, which you use only when you actually travel, would be a much fairer system than the one we have at the moment. It reflects the reality of a modern society in which many people work part-time, or every so often, due to family or caring commitments or the nature of their contracts. In fact, people in some parts of the country can already buy carnet tickets. First Capital Connect, First Great Western and East Midland trains are just a few of the companies that offer them – although they are rarely very well advertised: It’s high time Southeastern did the same.
Reforming the rail fare system is only one answer though. The main challenge for the rail companies is to close the so called ‘efficiency gap’ between the UK rail industry and the rest of Europe. The McNulty review of rail costs, which was commissioned by the last Labour government, revealed a 40% gulf in the efficiency of the UK industry and those of four of our European neighbours. The fragmentation of the industry, poor management, problems with franchising and cultural factors were to blame, the review found, for these inefficiencies. The review also took issue with the lack of transparency in the industry’s finances and cost performance.
Despite these findings there is still relatively little pressure on the industry for it to get its house in order. Until this happens and we find a better way of holding the industry to account for the way in which it uses its income from passengers, we will continue to suffer from high prices and poor value for money.