‘Meaningless soundbite’ or a good way to get passengers back on track? Why the Great Rail Sale has sparked debate



A rail ticket sale aimed at getting passengers back on the trains and offsetting the cost of living has been branded a ‘meaningless soundbite’ by critics – while others hope it could help the Government see the light about our over-priced network.

The bonanza, launched today for journeys taken between April 25 to May 27, had been sold by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as a way to ‘help passengers facing rising costs of living’. But it’s been panned by critics who say it will benefit ‘about 1 per cent’ of all journeys because it largely discounts intercity travel at quiet times.

The move was part of a bid to increase passenger numbers after they plummeted by nearly 80 per cent during the peak of the pandemic. Amid restrictions, a report from the Office of Rail Regulation showed passengers in the North West made a total of 30.6m journeys in the financial year 2020-21, just 21.1 per cent of those made the previous year. Passengers levels are now understood to have returned to 75pc of pre-Covid levels.

READ MORE: “Ridiculous, disappointing, regrettable”: Passengers respond to biggest rail hike in a decade

But critics have questioned whether the promotion, which will do little to help rush hour commuters waiting for trains through the congested Castlefield Corridor, was really the way to achieve that goal in the longer-term.

Although many tickets are now half price, almost all of those on offer are Advance fares, requiring specific times for routes in the future. They are also limited and subject to ‘availability and exclusions’, with peak fares which might benefit the average commuter not included. It’s also been pointed out that the sale runs for the five weeks before the next half-term holiday – and isn’t expected to run over the first May bank holiday.

Gareth Davies, railway engineer and writer, told the Manchester Evening News: “If it was going to have any meaningful impact on fares then the treasury wouldn’t have okay’d it.

“It’s a big soundbite piece but the impact on travelers is pretty minimal, it’s somewhat representative of the whole attitude to rail travel from Westminster. Do nothing while saying you are doing a lot.

“It’s quite restricted on what the discount applies to, it’s a small number of tickets. There needs to be an across-the-board reduction in fares to improve appeal. It’s not good enough, it’s not meaningful. They should be getting rid of peak fares all together.”

But he said that it would be a challenge, given the ‘incredibly archaic’ system and the Treasury’s reluctance to allow any changes that would result in a net reduction in revenue, much of which is filtered back into the network, with additional subsidy from the taxpayer .

There are cheap tickets to be found in the sale. On Trainline, the Manchester Evening News was able to find £23 one-way fares with Avanti West Coast from Manchester to London Euston. However, by 2.30pm on Tuesday, many of these for travel in April were already down to the last one on this website, and given the times they are available, they are more likely to benefit the leisure traveler.

There were also £23 tickets available on the Avanti West coast website, but options took three minutes to come up, presumably due to demand.

The Department for Transport (DfT) had also claimed a Manchester-Newcastle ticket would be available for £10.30, but the cheapest the MEN could find for a random slection of dates through the sale period was £30.50.

It follows a rise in regulated rail fares, which are set by the Government, of 3.8per cent last month, amid major concerns that the May timetable will see the continuation of reduced services in Greater Manchester as operators continue to grapple with the congested Castlefield corridor . Meanwhile, the Manchester Evening News has also reported how reduced timetables are set to continue into 2023.

Some experts took a slightly more hopeful stance. Norman Baker, from the Campaign for Better Transport, welcomed the sale as a way to ‘attract people onto trains and actually end up generating extra money for the Government’. He added: “It can show the Treasury that the way to increase income is to cut fares, not keep ratcheting them up and driving people off the railway. This initiative, though very welcome, is but a first step.”

He called for an end to annual fare rises, reform to how ticketing which align with new travel patterns, better use of public money by Network Rail (Great British Railways) to get more improvements, fewer engineering works when people want to travel and better timetables to eliminate ‘padding and poor connections’.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the sale should not distract passengers from longer-term funding, reliable services, a sustainable alternative to cars and job security for staff. Branding the move a ‘short-term gimmick’, he added: “This latest stunt should not deflect attention from the billions of pounds and 2,000 safety critical maintenance jobs the government is slashing from the railways. This is why we are determined campaign for a properly funded railway and why we will be balloting tens of thousands of railway workers for strike action to defend jobs, pay and safety on our train network.”

Meanwhile, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “For the first time ever, operators across the rail industry are coming together to help passengers facing rising costs of living by offering up to 50pc off more than a million tickets on journeys across Britain. There’s no better time to visit friends, family or just explore our great country, so book your tickets today.”

Jacqueline Starr, CEO of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “We want everyone to be able to benefit from traveling by train because it’s more than just a journey, it’s a way to connect everyone to the people, places and things they love. As part of the Great British Rail Sale customers will enjoy over one million discounted tickets, so they can explore some of the fantastic locations that are accessible by rail.”

The Government has said reforms to the rail sector following the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail mean network-wide sales of tickets ‘can’ occur more easily in future. The Manchester Evening News has asked the DfT for further comment based on critical reactions.

A DfT spokesperson said: “We don’t recognize this figure. Operators from across the industry have come together to offer an unprecedented amount of discounts which will help people with the cost of living, see the country and connect with friends and families.”




www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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