General election: Labour to cut rail fares by up to 75%

Simon Calder
Coastal cut: the peak fare between Brighton and London would fall by £20 to just £7.50 under Labour: Simon Calder

Up to three-quarters off train fares and free travel for under-16s – that is Labour’s promise to rail passengers if elected.

An across-the-board 33 per cent cut in regulated fares would take effect from January 2020, replacing the planned 2.7 per cent increase announced by train operators.

In addition, a crucial change in pricing for rush-hour tickets would see some fares fall by as much as 76 per cent.

Regulated fares include season tickets on most commuter journeys, peak-time tickets around major cities and some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys.

These cover around 45 per cent of fares. Other fares, including advance and off-peak single tickets, are unregulated.

The Labour Party says the plan would save the average commuter £1,097 annually and “tackle the crisis of unaffordability on the railway”.

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said Britain has “one of the most complex, exploitative and expensive ticketing systems in the world” as a result of privatisation.

He said: “Labour will scrap the bewildering and outdated fares and ticketing system that discriminates against part-time workers, discourages rail travel and excludes the young and low paid.

“Labour is on the side of passengers, which is why we will introduce a simpler, fairer and more affordable system for all.

“Labour will deliver a railway in public ownership for the many, not the few.”

His party’s most radical proposal is to cut the cost of single peak fares to one-tenth of the cost of a one-week season ticket. On a journey such as Brighton to London Victoria, the effects would be dramatic.

At present the peak single fare is £27.50. Once the one-third nationwide cut is applied, a weekly season ticket will cost £75 – making the new single fare just £7.50. The £20 fare cut represents a saving of 73 per cent.

A Durham-Newcastle peak ticket, currently £7.50 one way, would cost only £1.70, representing a reduction of 76 per cent. Between Liverpool and Manchester, the current £15 anytime fare would fall to £3.95 – a fall of 74 per cent. From Bath to Bristol, the £9 peak fare would be cut by 69 per cent to £2.85.

At present children aged 5-16 pay half-fare; under Labour, they would travel free. It is not clear what would happen to holders of Family & Friends railcards, which confer discounts for adults travelling with children.

In its manifesto, published 10 days ago, the party promised to make rail fares “simpler and more affordable” – as well as renationalising the railway.

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said: “Rail companies have been calling for some time for changes in regulation to enable an easier to use, better value range of fares, but it’s a red herring to suggest that reforming fares needs a change of ownership.

“Overall fare levels will always be a matter for elected politicians in deciding the balance of fare-payer and taxpayer funding.

“Train companies would obviously support a reduction for passengers as long as it is funded on an ongoing basis so that investment to improve the railway can continue.”

Rail expert Mark Smith, founder of the Seat61.com website, said: “The maths is the same whether privatised or nationalised.

“The government needs to replace the drop in revenue with the same amount in extra subsidy, not just to cover the revenue shortfall from regulated fares, but also from unregulated fares, which will also be impacted, and for any costs in dealing with the resulting overcrowding.

“The question is where the money will come from, and whether this is the best use of what funds are available.”

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called the fare cut “another desperate attempt from Labour to distract from their inability and unwillingness to be straight with people on where they stand on Brexit”.

The Conservatives have promised an end to “the complicated franchising model” devised by John Major’s government in the 1990s, but have recently awarded a new franchise on the West Coast main line to a consortium involving FirstGroup and the Italian state railway.

Labour’s other proposed changes include simplifying rail fares, creating “islands” around cities where zonal fares would apply and having a centralised point for digital ticket sales.

The party estimates the cost of its fare-cut proposals to be £1.5bn. It says the shortfall will be made up from Vehicle Excise Duty.

But with some fares cut by almost three-quarters, train operators would need to cut unregulated prices sharply – or see passengers switching to regulated fares.

The Independent calculates the fall in fare take, assuming no increase in passengers, would be around £4bn. However, this would be offset by a surge in demand for rail travel as travellers shifted from road and air to rail or made more discretionary journeys.

It is not clear how the increase in passenger numbers, which would be most pronounced on rush-hour journeys, would be accommodated.

The party has pledged to end driver-only operation of trains, as the RMT union has demanded. Labour estimates that to cover all trains that lack a second member of staff and to upgrade staff on trains not trained to the necessary level of guard will cost £100m annually. The party says: “This extra staffing will come from existing DfT budgets and be funded by an expansion of the VED.”

The fares announcement was made as the longest and most damaging UK rail strike in decades begins.

Members of the RMT working for South Western Railway (SWR) will stop work throughout December – apart from election day on 12 December, and Christmas Day and Boxing Day when no trains will run.

The strike is the latest in a long-running dispute over the role of guards.

SWR runs trains to London Waterloo, Britain’s busiest rail station, from southwest London, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon.

The train firm hopes to run about half its normal services.

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