Iain Stewart is a member of the Transport Select Committee, and is MP for Milton Keynes South.
The industry-led consultation on ticketing and fares is welcome news for rail customers. The country has moved on since 1995 – now rail fares and ticketing must do too. The rail industry has launched a consultation to seek root and branch reform of ticketing and fares regulations that date back to the mid-1990s. This is a unique opportunity to make fares easier for customers, and to build trust in our railway.
From my experience as a member of the Transport Select Committee, I recognise that the railway has come a long way since 1995. The number of railway journeys taken last year alone topped 1.7 billion – more than ever before. The UK has one of the safest railways in Europe and has the highest level of satisfaction of any major railway in Europe. There are 28 per cent more services, and the railway employs 47 per cent more people than it did in 1997.
However, one area where our railway has not moved on is ticketing and fares. First introduced in 1995, what was well-intentioned regulation has since become enmeshed with complexity and requirements from rafts of subsequent franchise agreements. Twenty-three years on, we are now faced with around 55 million different fares on offer.
This matters, because not only should customers be able easily to choose the right ticket for them, but also because it is ticket receipts that increasingly underpin the progress we are seeing right now, and will see in the future.
There is now record investment in the railways, with the Government overseeing the greatest transformation since the steam age, and with an additional £13.8 billion of private sector investment. This is delivering new carriages (7,000 by 2021), more services (6,400 a week), and a station building and upgrade programme of £5 billion.
Indeed, the signs of what is coming down the tracks are visible in my constituency of Milton Keynes South, with plans for a major line build/rebuilding programme – East West Rail – which, if successful, would establish a new Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge ‘growth corridor’, with the potential to support 1.1 million new jobs and to boost gross value added by £163 billion.
By any measure, substantial progress has been made, but crucially we need to ensure that customers trust the fares on offer – so they can see their money in action.
This Government is absolutely right in wanting to ensure the right balance of cost burden between the taxpayer and the passenger. Conservatives understand that there is no magic money tree, and that we need to be mindful of a situation in which rail competes for funding with the NHS, policing and other vital public services. In doing this, we need to make sure that customers have confidence that they are buying the right ticket for them.
At the moment, that’s not the case. Recent independent research by KPMG shows that only one in three rail customers was very confident that they bought the best value ticket for their last journey, and that less than one in three customers was very satisfied with their experience of buying a ticket.
This is hardly surprising given that the system has not changed, while the way we live and work has. The number of people in part-time work and self-employment has increased by over a third in 22 years. Increasingly flexible working patterns mean that we no longer ask for the same standard range of tickets that we used to, with the total number of season ticket journeys taken last year falling by 21 million on the year before.
Beyond this, advances in technology have undoubtedly disrupted and in many ways improved our lives, and we need to ensure we leverage the benefits of change on the railway. Greater uptake of smart ticketing and enabling of customers to buy tickets through smartphones are just some examples of ways in which customer experience can be improved.
Reform represents a challenge, but also a significant opportunity for change. That is why I welcome the rail industry’s and Transport Focus’ efforts in grasping the nettle and tackling this issue. The consultation will ask customers, businesses, passenger groups, employees and the public to have their say on what the fares system should look like, and I am calling on my constituents, and all those with an interest or a stake in the change to feed into this consultation to help make fares easier for everyone, now and for the long-term. The railway has moved on, now fares and ticketing must do too.