Proposals to introduce higher rail fares for peak time travel could never be popular.
It’s certainly no surprise that Labour has drawn attention to the idea, which was included in a consultation launched by the Department for Transport.
And perhaps it’s no surprise that Ministers have broken with convention and announced, or dropped extremely heavy hints at least, that the proposal is to be rejected – even though the findings of the consultation are yet to be published formally.
But while we welcome the Ministerial statement, it’s worth looking at why the idea was ever proposed in the first place.
The difficulty is that some rail services are simply too crowded. This doesn’t apply to every service during peak hour, and in some cases there will be very specific services where the problem is at its worse. Hence, officials suggested introducing “high peak” fares – a term Labour has translated as “super peak” – for trains for which demand is highest.
In a perfect world, demand for services would be met by putting on more trains. But there is a limit to what the infrastructure can deliver.
That leaves three options. The first is simply to cram more passengers in like sardines, but even if we disregard for a moment the unpleasantness this creates, there is a limit to how many people can fit into a carriage.
The second is to issue a limited number of tickets on a first come, first served basis. Something like this does happen, as rail staff in some cases prevent passengers from getting on to a train when it is judged to be full.
The final option is to try to change people’s travelling patterns, and that probably means using ticket prices as a lever. It’s the only tool available.
Hence, officials have asked ministers to consider offering slightly cheaper tickets for services which are in peak hours but are slightly less busy than others.
And, as noted previously, they suggested “super peak” prices for the most crowded.
If we are not going to adopt this type of proposal then perhaps we need to return again to the question of infrastructure. And given that some of the most crowded services are long-distance trains between London and Birmingham, this could be seen as highlighting the need for a new rail line – such as the planned high speed line between London, Birmingham and the north, controversial as it may be.