The commute from Bletchley to London is over 50 miles of steel. If Celia is lucky, a fast train can get her to Euston station in 37 minutes, stuffed in an airless carriage with no chance for a seat. But she isn’t ever lucky. Since she started commuting last year, train delays have plagued her 102-minute average daily commute, to the point that she even set aside time in her calendar every week to claim back money from London Northwestern.
During the coronavirus crisis she cancelled her season ticket, but now her office is open so she has to travel a couple of days a week. And train ticket prices are making her furious. “Only some train lines are offering flexible tickets and London Northwestern ain’t one of them,” she says. “It seems so unfair to me that different lines are offering different things and not really in line with the government advice of heading back in slowly… I don’t want to risk buying a season ticket if a flexi option comes after, or even worse, a second wave.”
She is one of the thousands of UK commuters who have been left out of pocket since lockdown was eased. The majority of workers who are returning to the office are going back part time, and are stuck between a season ticket that they don’t need, or expensive single day tickets that they can’t really afford.
A letter from 16 MPs to the Department for Transport last week showed the way the wind is blowing. Train companies need to offer a travel card that is adapted to the way people live and work now, they argued, because quite a substantial number of their constituents will be “flexi-working”.
“This means that the value of a season ticket is removed and instead people are having to pay for the vastly more expensive peak day return tickets,” the MPs wrote. “This is not sustainable.”
UK commuters are already spending up to five times as much on train travel compared to the rest of Europe, according to a study by the TUC in 2018. On average, workers travelling from Chelmsford in Essex would have to pay 13 per cent of their salary for a monthly £381 rail ticket. Annual season tickets don’t improve matters: alongside monthly tickets, they went up again at the start of this year and the average season ticket hit £3,000 for the first time, up from £2,980 in 2018 according to analysis by Labour.
The MPs’ plea may be political, but it could also be the only thing that saves the train system from total collapse. Rail operators were already at the edge of a precipice before lockdown, forcing the government to suspend the rail franchise system, and now UK taxpayers are facing a bill of at least £3.5 billion to bail them out after the crisis.
Yet during the pandemic, broadly 80 per cent of trains continued to operate based on the normal schedule at around 18 or 19 per cent capacity, says David Sidebottom, director at Transport Focus, a watchdog for transport passengers and road users. No one believes that this level of service is sustainable long term.
“The government has to work out how on Earth it structures and funds the railways in the future, and no one has the answer to that yet,” he says. Flexible season tickets would push train travel in the right direction, he says, “because if we stick with the structure we’re got, it’s too expensive”. His claims are backed up by the watchdog’s own research, which suggests that half of people expect to work from home more often in the future, while a third believe that their job will be home-based with limited travel to work.
Sidebottom believes that there can be no downside from offering flexible tickets: after all, some travel is better than none at all. “There was already a shift to people moving to more flexible arrangements [before coronavirus], triggered by all sorts of events. What’s happened the past four months is that everything has completely turned itself off. And revenue has dried up: it’s not just commuters, it’s tourism as well.”
The Department for Transport says it is examining how it can make sure that part time and flexible workers are provided with “better value and more convenient options” and that it has asked train companies to come up with proposals to solve this issue.
But this problem isn’t new: the DfT’s own research two years ago flagged that commuting behaviour had changed because of flexible working, a problematic trend that train operators simply failed to address. Last year, the Office of Road and Rail warned that season tickets – the most important source of revenue for train operators – had fallen to an almost decade-long low. A carnet offering, where passengers can buy a batch of ten tickets to use when they like, or a season ticket that caps out at two or three days a week could be the thing to tip people back into using trains to get to work, instead of cars.
In the past, any flexible ticket offering on Britain’s railways has been a bit of a joke. Data from the National Infrastructure Commission shows that all of the flexible ticketing prices work out worse than season tickets: the c2c railway has sold flexible season tickets since June 2016 but they only offer a five per cent discount, for example, while Great Northern railway provides a carnet scheme where packs of five or ten tickets can be bought with a ten per cent discount, but this is less than the typical discount on a season ticket.
If train lines don’t start offering a flexible alternative that makes economic sense, more people will start switching to walking and cycling, says professor Helena Titheridge from UCL, but for longer distances they could turn to cars, which would have dire consequences for the environment. Still, she argues that flexible fares alone will not be enough to tempt higher earners — those who are most likely to work remotely — back to train carriages. “I think for the majority there probably isn’t enough of an incentive,” she says. “There are people who will benefit hugely and enable them to continue to use public transport. Part time workers, carers and people who work in the voluntary sector would benefit immensely from that type of fare.”
The latest effort at flexible ticketing launched last month and echoes the issues of the past. Rail operator Northern started to offer passengers between Leeds and Harrogate ten unlimited travel days for the price of nine, which can be taken at any time over the following six months. Although this works out better than individual standard tickets, there is no discount for travelling off peak or on weekends — and it’s unlikely to make any semi- frequent traveler any savings.
Without overhauling the train network’s entire infrastructure, Chris Richards, director of policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers, says that it’s going to be almost impossible to avoid basic mistakes in ticketing. Operators have always had to guesstimate how many people are going to travel on their train lines up to ten years in the future, he explains, which then rules their decisions on how many trains to invest in and how much tickets need to cost. “Why can’t we be doing that on a week by week basis, using data sensors and predictive analytics, to get a better sense of what might be happening?” he argues. “That can happen. We need to invest in that data, those sensors, the framework, to enable us to have a much more responsive infrastructure and transport network in the future.”
Predictive tech is more affordable than ever, he says, and could easily be used to mimic the “just in time” supply systems present in other sectors, such as supermarkets. “They pull data sources, they look at the weather for next week, they look at all traffic in the last week, they look at what their competitors are doing,” he says. “So instead of running 12 car trains Monday to Friday in peak hours just in case, you go, ‘this week we recommend eight car trains between eight and nine o’clock, and then actually after that we’ll probably quiet down’. I think that will increasingly be the model going forward.”
If train operators figure out the logistics of ticketing, it could open the floodgates for people who have spent lockdown dreaming of larger living spaces, gardens or even a place of their own in the countryside.
The perception that any savings on rent or mortgage would go straight into commuting costs fell by the wayside during lockdown as people started searching for properties abroad and outside of city centres. Suddenly, a 1,500 square foot property in Bedfordshire costing £463,500 (which is over £150,000 less than a one bedroom flat in Zone 1 in Londonaccording to Savills) became a real possibility for buyers on a budget.
For people like Stefan, who is looking to move to the UK from Dubai, this would be a gamechanger. “We would love to live outside of London, but the cost of travel from certain areas is just crazy,” he admits. “It’s playing a huge factor in where we are looking to buy. Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Ashford, Bishops Stortford; all cost over £4,000 for annual season tickets. I would absolutely reconsider where we go if travel were cheaper.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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