Flexible season tickets: DfT goes round in circles


Essential workers risk losing hundreds of pounds on rail season tickets because the Government has failed to progress industry proposals for flexible tickets submitted in the summer.

Plans for tickets for part-time commuters ‘reflecting modern working lives’ remain ‘under development’, the Department for Transport (DfT) has said.

This is despite a longstanding commitment to implement them, and the fact the Government has now effectively nationalised the rail network in England as a result of the loss of fares from lockdowns.

GWR put forward a flexible season ticket last July

In December, ministers announced an above-inflation rise for regulated rail fares in but suggested that commuters could save money by renewing annual season tickets before the fares increase in March.

For commuters travelling three days a week, the cost of daily tickets makes full-time seasons the cheapest option. With the pandemic likely to have permanently changed travel patterns, flexible season tickets have now been put forward as a long-term solution to falling demand and a way of retaining revenue.

In September rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris told MPs that the Government had sought proposals for such tickets from the train operating companies (TOCs) in June, ‘and those were received by the Department over the summer’.

He said: ‘My officials are in the process of carefully considering the proposals, ensuring that they will offer value for money, give passengers what they want, be deliverable and work for the future. We will continue to consider these proposals, balancing better deals for passengers with the cost to taxpayers.’

As Transport Network reported in July, Great Western Railway (GWR) submitted proposals to the DfT for a flexible ‘three days in seven' ticket, as well as one allowing travel on four days a month.

At the end of last year, the GWR website described a flexible season ticket as ‘coming soon’. This reference has now been removed, although this may be because the company does not want to be encouraging travel during the latest lockdown.

A spokesman for the company told Transport Network that its proposals remain with the DfT.

Despite Mr Heaton-Harris’ clear statement to MPs that TOCs had submitted proposals, the DfT has recently sought to suggest that it is actually waiting for them. The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the department had written to rail operators to urge them to start ‘immediate work’ on proposals.

It reported that a Whitehall source had said ‘it was hoped that the new tickets would be introduced by spring’ and denied reports that the Treasury was attempting to sink them because of concerns over cost.

The DfT has also said that flexible season tickets will be introduced across England this year.

A spokesperson told Transport Network that proposals are ‘still under development’.

The spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to providing a more flexible, modern ticketing system for passengers. That is why we are looking at ways to make this a reality for commuters, including flexible season tickets. We’ll set out further details in due course.’

‘In due course’ is official jargon for the absence of a timescale. However, even if such ticket were introduced in the spring, this would mean that many commuters still travelling, who are necessarily carrying out essential work that cannot be done at home, will have already renewed their season tickets on a full-time basis.

Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: ‘With an above inflation rail fare rise now confirmed for March, passengers need urgent fares reform, including the introduction of flexible season tickets for part-time commuters, to prevent people abandoning the railways all together post-COVID.’

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