Delay in flexible rail tickets as ministers seek to discourage lockdown travel

Flexible rail tickets have yet to be introduced to avoid encouraging passengers to travel when lockdown restrictions are in place, a transport minister has suggested.

Chris Heaton-Harris insisted the Government is working with the industry and expects to “make announcements when we can” on the proposals.

But he noted that they are also “very wary” of sending mixed messages at a time when people are being told to stay at home unless they need to travel for work or other approved reasons.

Speaking in the Commons, Labour MP Kate Osborne (Jarrow) asked when flexible season tickets may be introduced to encourage people back to rail networks.

She said: “Because millions of commuters are now working from home, the RMT union (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) have produced research on flexible rail tickets which showed if the cost of full-time season tickets were prorated to two, three or four days a week, these tickets would offer better value for money and encourage passengers back to our railways when it’s safe to do so.

“So can the minister update us on the department’s plans with industry on flexible ticketing and when these tickets might be introduced?”

Mr Heaton-Harris responded: “I welcome the work done by the RMT in this area and a whole host of others.

“We are working with industry on what we can do with flexible ticketing going forward.

“But we are very wary that sending mixed messages at this time in trying to encourage people to maybe buy tickets for future travel might not be the right thing to do, but I do promise her we are working with industry very closely and expect to make announcements when we can.”

Mr Heaton-Harris also said people will need to be encouraged back to use the railways in future.

For Labour, shadow transport minister Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said: “In the midst of a pandemic and facing a deep recession when people are losing their jobs and seeing wages slashed, this Tory Government is pushing through inflation-busting rail fare increases this March.

“After a period of record-low passenger numbers, we need to encourage people back on to trains to help our economy and our environment. So it makes absolutely no sense to increase ticket prices.

“So can the minister explain why his Government continues to pay risk-free guaranteed profits to private train companies? Is it fair that rail passengers across our country will be picking up the tab and paying much more to get to work or see their loved ones?”

Mr Heaton-Harris responded: “We have actually temporarily frozen fares in January and February so people can look at what their travel plans might be as lockdown plans are announced.

“We have introduced all sorts of railcards – so a whole host of discounts, regulated fares will be increasing at the lowest actual increase in four years.”

He added: “But yes, he is quite right, we do need eventually to encourage people back onto our rails. If we’re going to decarbonise, if we’re going to level up, we want to take people off of the roads and bring them back to the railways, entice them back and we will have products to do that.”

Labour’s Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) earlier claimed railway companies are acting like it’s “business as usual” in terms of Covid safety.

She said: “The minister will be aware that Rail Industry Coronavirus Forum figures show that total Covid deaths among rail workers have tragically more than doubled since November from 12 to 26, and the absences have also doubled. The figures could be even higher when subcontractors are included.

“The RMT Union is concerned, despite the new variant, that some rail companies are acting like it’s businesses as usual.”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I have been talking to the rail companies throughout this crisis and indeed the general secretaries of the unions and we have issued very comprehensive guidance to public transport operators including rail operators, and this has been reinforced by officials throughout the pandemic on how to keep staff safe and trains clean so passengers and staff are able to maintain good hygiene.”