Rail fares and franchises - Transport Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 134-139)

MR COLIN FOXALL, MR MIKE HEWITSON, MS SHARON GRANT, MR TIM BELLENGER AND MR RICHARD ROWSON

4 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q134 Chairman: Good afternoon. I apologise for keeping you so long, but I hope you have found the wait informative. You have made many criticisms of the level of fare increases based on the information figures last July. What do you feel the Government could, and should, do about that?

  Mr Foxall: I think we would say, from Passenger Focus's side, that these increases are excessive, given the current economic situation. We have said to the Government really that, in the light of the economic circumstances, we think that the policies which have been adopted ought to be reviewed, not only in relation to what directly comes out of the franchises and the agreements that have been reached in relation to the headline figures, but also in relation to the mechanics that sit underneath, which have been referred to earlier, which allow average fares to be struck or average increases to be struck, but then provide for quite a wide range of fares that actually can be charged. In that context, perhaps I might remark that, although inflation rates might fall, say, to 1% or less in the summer, and that might govern the increases that take place in January next year, there would still be scope under the existing system, as I understand it, for some fares to increase by multiples of that figure, providing the average was not more than of course 1% or RPI plus 1%, so 1% plus 1% or 0% plus 1% and so on, so that is the basic thing we have said to the Government and that is our basic conclusion in relation to what the train companies have announced.

  Q135  Chairman: Does anybody want to add to that?

  Ms Grant: I think we would share that view. We think there is certainly a perception of unfairness about what has happened this year. Clearly, the RPI plus 1% is calculated in July, but not implemented until January when, in the meantime, inflation has gone down, and the perception is one of great unfairness and we need to be looking at the mechanism to see what can be done about that. There are concerns about affordability and there are concerns about value for money. I think the evidence that we have is that people feel that they are paying more, but they see no improvement in issues like overcrowding and customer services.

  Q136  Chairman: The railway companies told us that people were satisfied. Are you disputing that?

  Mr Foxall: Perhaps I could answer because they are quoting my statistics or Passenger Focus's statistics, and of course they are right. They are right about performance. Their passengers are telling them through our surveys that they are broadly satisfied with performance, by which we mean punctuality, reliability and so on, and that is a very important driver in all of these things, but they also tell us that their view of value for money is much less enthusiastic, with a figure of around the 40% mark higher for some long-distance operators and lower for commuter operators, so there is a very big disconnect between those two figures. Madam Chairman, can I just say at this point that, as I think you are aware, we are due to produce two fairly substantial reports on this subject of value for money and on comparisons with European fare levels very shortly. Now, they have not yet been delivered to the Secretary of State who commissioned them and I, therefore, cannot draw on them very heavily today, but it is my plan to publish them before, I think, you are due to interview ministers later in the month, so I hope they will be available to the Committee at that point to assist you in your conclusions.

  Q137  Chairman: When do you expect them to be ready?

  Mr Foxall: I would not like to commit myself to a hard date, if you do not mind, Madam Chair, but I hope to do so in about a couple of weeks.

  Q138  Mr Hollobone: There have been some staggering fare increases around the network. The biggest one which has been brought to my attention is for travellers from south-east London, the Belvedere, Bexleyheath and Sidcup area, who saw their fares go up by 13.5% in January 2008, they were promised that the increases would be mitigated in 2009 and in 2009 they have gone up another 11.6%, so the fares have gone up over 26% in a two-year period and yet many of those travellers this week will have got on and off their trains at these stations with the platforms not cleared of snow. In your view, representing passengers as you do, how can a quarter increase in the fares over a two-year period for no change in the service be in any sense acceptable at any level?

  Mr Foxall: Well, it is unfair. What, I think, aggrieves us about the present system is not that the fare increases exist because, if they are reasonable, they have to take place whatever, but there is a kind of randomness about this process, so, because we have this fares basket concept, it could be that someone at one station gets a 0% increase, even possibly a cut, and someone a little bit further along the line suddenly finds himself the recipient of the kind of examples that you have mentioned. I think it is extremely difficult to justify a system like that for a public service. It is random, it feels random, it feels like you are singling out groups of passengers, and I do not think it is sustainable.

  Q139  Mr Hollobone: To use an example affecting my own constituents, I am regularly emailed by my constituent, Christopher Thompson, who has the misfortune to be a daily commuter from Kettering into London St Pancras and, very kindly, he keeps me regularly updated about the poor service which he experiences. Now, on the Midland Mainline, the new franchisee, East Midlands Trains/Stagecoach, took over the operation last year, the fare increases have been 7% both in 2008 and 2009, yet for many of my constituents, especially travelling back home from London in the evening, they are having to stand for 40 minutes on the train until people get off at Bedford. Now, I know that in the franchise agreements there is no requirement that, if you buy a ticket, you get a seat, but people do expect on long journeys to be able to sit down. To stand up for more than 20 minutes, I would have thought, is completely unacceptable. What are your views on that?

  Mr Hewitson: I totally agree. Twenty minutes has been roughly the rule of thumb from BR days and, for anything over that, you should get a seat, you should be able to sit down as part of the basic product. I know that with the walk-up-and-go system, in the sense that everyone can turn up for the same train with season tickets, it is very hard to guarantee. For longer-distance services, you need to plan capacity to match the numbers of people. One of the things our research shows us about the drivers of satisfaction is punctuality, value for money, it is getting a seat; it is the core product that passengers value and it is the core product that they judge the industry by.



 
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