'Smart ticketing' to cut cost of rail travel for off-peak commuters

Transport Secretary plans to make discounts more flexible – and ‘regrets’ the marketing of HS2

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The Independent Online

Commuters who travel on trains outside periods of peak demand and those who work part-time are to be given season ticket discounts as part of plans to reduce the cost of regular rail travel.

In an interview with The Independent, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin admitted the Government and the rail industry had much more to do for people who use trains to get to work. But he said that work was underway with new ‘smart ticketing’ to reduce the cost for thousands of passengers.

This week C2C, which runs from London to eastern England, introduced the first London Oyster-style smart ticketing for regular travellers on main-line services. It is the first train company to trial the new system of discounts as part of its new franchise agreement with the Department of Transport. It is then expected to be rolled out across the rail network.

“I’m not going to sit here complacently and say everything is fine for the passenger,” Mr McLoughlin said. “I think there is a lot that still has to be done for the commuter. I am very well aware of the burden of fares.” 

Last year, rail fares for season ticket holders increased by an average of 4.2 per cent.

Mr McLoughlin said electronic ticketing could help cut fares. “Not all commuters want to use the train five days a week. But at the moment it works out cheaper to pay for a season ticket than buying three return journeys a week. We have not got the kind of smart ticketing that would make the difference to enable you to purchase six journeys a week rather than pay for ten journeys a week.”

Mr McLoughlin added commuters who could arrange flexible hours with their employers should also benefit from cheaper season ticket travel if they avoided periods when trains are busiest.

“We all know that commuter trains are horrendous between 8am and 9am. Now can we get to the situation where somebody gets on their train at 10am is charged a different rate? With smart technology there are a lot more opportunities.”

Mr McLoughlin also said he “deeply regretted” the way the Government had branded its planned railway between London and Birmingham HS2 because it gave the impression it was all about speed and not about capacity.

He also said he believed the Government had a good record on rail investment and the regeneration of stations such as Kings Cross St Pancras. “I want places around Curzon Street Station in Birmingham, places like Piccadilly in Manchester to become the kind of beacons that Kings Cross St Pancras is. Twenty-five years ago nobody would have wanted to stay around those places for more than five minutes – well most people wouldn’t,” he said.

“But today they are destinations in their own right. I have been using St Pancras for 20 years. If I arrive there half an hour early for my train now that’s great I’ll go and have a coffee, go to Fortnum & Mason. You can buy yourself a cup of tea if you want to spend that much money on a cup of tea. It is fantastic.”

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing rail operators, said they recognised they could do more to exploit the advantage of smart ticketing. “We are already exploring new forms of ticketing such as smart cards and mobile ticketing that have the potential to reduce journey times, offer more flexible fares and drive down costs.

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