Smarter Cambridge Transport

Time to suspend peak-time rail fares?

With COVID travel restrictions now being lifted gradually, we can expect more people to be returning to work in offices. However, many employers will continue to require (or encourage) staff to work from home or a remote office at least some days a week.

Most commuters using public transport buy season tickets, as these are usually heavily discounted compared with peak-time day returns. But what if you don’t travel five days a week?

If commuting from London to Cambridge, a season ticket is the better option if you commute three or more days most weeks. If commuting from Ely or Royston to Cambridge, a monthly season ticket is worthwhile only if you commute five days most weeks; and an annual season ticket is good value only if you commute four days most weeks.

Faced with more expensive daily travel costs, many part-time commuters will simply not return to trains and buses if they are able to drive instead.

Part of the reason peak-time fares are so expensive is to deter people from travelling when there’s a risk of dangerous overcrowding. That’s unlikely to be a problem for many months, so peak fares could be reduced, or even suspended altogether. Off-peak rail fares provide a similar discount to a season ticket, and offer better value for part-time commuters.

Now is the perfect time for the government to act to reduce fares with the aim of drawing people back to the railways and converting more car commuters to using public transport.

The revenue risk currently falls entirely on the government, not on operators’ profits. That’s because train operating companies are working to emergency contracts, under which the government pays costs plus a 1.5% management fee.

Railfuture has taken a more pragmatic position, campaigning for a “flexible season ticket for 2021” that would give part-time commuters a better deal than a season ticket, or a carnet of tickets. Either way, we need the rail industry and government to wake up to the fact that, without urgent reforms to fares, we could see many more people commuting by car in 2022.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 10 March 2021.

Edward Leigh

Edward Leigh is the leader of Smarter Cambridge Transport, chair and independent co-opted member of the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel, chair of the South Petersfield Residents Association, business owner, consultant, and occasional blogger about making the world and Cambridge a better place to live.

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