RAIL commuters are to be offered ‘fairer’ flexible season tickets to help them with a part-time return to the office next month.
The money-saving move comes after Boris Johnson said the official ‘work from home’ advice would be ditched from August 1 and bosses would be given ‘discretion’ to get staff back to the workplace. Now, Great Western Railway (GWR) is set to introduce a ‘three-days-in-seven’ season ticket on its trains into London. Abellio, which runs the Merseyrail and Greater Anglia lines, is promising ‘dynamic discounting’ — where people will get money off each time they travel on a route in a 12-month period.
And the Department for Transport has told other operators to come up with similar ideas.
The move has been welcomed by passenger groups. ‘Bring it on,’ said Bruce Williamson, of Railfuture. ‘We need season tickets that work for two days… that work for four days. Work patterns were changing anyway before the crisis and, more than ever, we need flexibility.’
Road traffic has returned to 86 per cent of pre-lockdown levels but rail services are operating at just 16 per cent, with fewer than one worker in six back in the office full time, according to the Centre for Cities thinktank.
A GWR spokesman said: ‘Our research suggests commuters will travel, on average, into work three days a week, rather than the current five.’
A spokesman for Abellio said: ‘We want to respond swiftly to major changes in demand for train travel by offering new and simple ways to buy tickets.’
Campaigners warned that any benefits should not be confined just to London’s commuters.
‘The government should insist that all operators offer such tickets, and that they give an equivalent discount to full-time season tickets,’ said Darren Shirley, of the Campaign for Better Transport. ‘Part-time commuters do not need a repeat of “carnet tickets” that offer little or no savings.’ The Department for Transport also insisted it wanted any reforms to benefit commuters nationwide and to be ‘as useful and convenient as possible’.
A spokeswoman said: ‘We’ve been clear that, as we rebuild from Covid-19, we must invest in revitalising towns and cities across the north, to ensure we kickstart our economic recovery, deliver rapid improvements to journeys for passengers, and accelerate the delivery of key projects. We will announce further details in due course.’
Hopes of a return to normality rose after the Office of National Statistics said there had been not been any noticeable spike in virus infections since lockdown was eased.
But Anthony Smith, of watchdog Transport Focus, said the annual season ticket is ‘pretty much dead’.
He told The Sunday Times: ‘A get-back-to-work message has got to be matched by the get-back-to-work rail products to underpin it.’ Mr Williamson said only ‘bureaucracy’ had prevented reform of season tickets in the past, and suggested London’s Oyster card scheme as a possible model.
‘Oyster gives you that flexibility,’ he said. ‘It uses some clever maths to work out your cheapest fair and we want that to be rolled out across the country.’
He added: ‘We don’t have a joined up transport system in this country.
‘I’m still optimistic that when the pandemic is over passenger numbers will return because we’ve seen the number double in the last 20 years.
‘A lot will argue that we’ve got into home working with Zoom, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting.’