Great British Railways and the Flexi season tickets – are they worth it?

The UK Government announced the formation of a new railway body to oversee all aspects of UK railways – replacing Network Rail for infrastructure management, taking over ticketing across the network but retaining the use of private companies to actually run the services.

Although they don’t like people saying it and deny it themselves this is nationalisation in all but name.

For those interested here’s an excellent summary of how we got where we are:

Part of the announcement was the long awaited and long demanded reform of ticketing and in particular the provision of ‘part-time’ season tickets. Provision is going to be made in June for season tickets that will allow use for up to 8 days within a 28 day period – use of smart tickets and smart phone apps make this possible.

The department of transport headed by minister Grant Shapps (the name he is using these days) quoted savings for various routes:

Many people will see this as job done, the Government has sorted out the railways and reduced ticket prices for commuters.

But let’s make it clear that the savings quoted are in comparison to buying the equivalent peak time daily tickets.

If you work this out for the various routes it amounts to, on average, a 9% saving – ranging from 4% to 14%.

This is hardly game changing. Most of the quoted routes are suburban and the annual costs of a flexi season do work out cheaper than an annual season ticket in most cases – Bromsgrove to Birmingham seems to be an anomaly. In some cases (Woking to London) taking it under the annual season ticket price which it wasn’t before. But in this case only by a few hundred pounds – most people, if they can afford it, would choose to buy an annual season ticket and have the flexibility of being able to travel any day seven days a week. Other routes will probably be similarly priced so that the flexi tickets are redundant.

On this basis for commuters on longer routes the situation will probably not change at all – the maths simply doesn’t add up for the Government unless they slash daily ticket prices and thus flexi seasons or price season tickets on a proportional basis.

For instance if you apply the quoted savings to the Market Harborough to London St Pancras East Midlands Railways route:

The current Anytime Return price is £129 per day = £117.39 with a flexi season ticket discount = £10,800 per annum based on 2 days travel for 46 weeks a year. Way more than the current annual season ticket cost of £8,836. And for 3 days it would work out double!

This is of course the present situation for this route – annual season is significantly cheaper than buying daily. That’s because the daily standard tickets have been allowed to rise over decades by successive Governments at the whim of private train companies. They are not regulated to fixed inflation+ rises by the Government.

What many people were hoping for was a radical shake up of ticketing so that flexible annual season tickets were offered on a proportional basis. For instance, to buy a 2 day a week annual flexi season you would pay a proportion of the annual cost. There are many ways of working this out but let’s take the generous approach and say that it should be 2/5’s of the annual cost (2 days a week over the 5 day working week – in reality annual season allow 7 days travel but that’s not usually how they are used by most commuters).

So in the case of Market Harborough to London St Pancras this would be 2/5’s of £8,836 = £3,534.

There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be seen as fair – commuters are making an annual commitment to travel and are paying for what they use. It would encourage more use of trains on a flexible basis.

The problem for the Government is that this does not tally with daily ticket prices and the overall revenue it brings in – that’s not the commuters fault, it’s the Government’s.

Compare this to Germany where for example an equivalent journey (distance wise Market Harborough to London – remember £129 Anytime return) between Magdeberg and Berlin would cost you 65EUR (£56) for a return on high speed trains. Season ticket wise, in Germany you can buy a BahnCard 100 for 4,027EUR (£3,466) – interestingly similar to our proportional calculation of £3,534 for the Market Harborough to London annual season ticket. The big difference though is that the Bahncard 100 allows you to travel anywhere on the Deutsche Bahn rail network! And there are equivalent Bahncards for 50% and 25% reductions on turn up and buy tickets so your choices are numerous, simple, flexible and a lot cheaper than the UK.

Now I know from my German friends that train travel in Germany is not great particularly on non-inter city routes. And that as a consequence of this and an excellent road system car travel is much more prevalent. But the price differential is just extraordinary.

How do they achieve these kinds of ticket prices. Yes, through general taxation for the common good but also by running train services in the UK and reinvesting the profits they easily achieve from the Government sanctioned high ticket prices in their own state owned networks. Nothing in the latest ‘Great British Railways’ proposals addresses that scandal!

End of the High Speed Train (HST) Class 43 Intercity 125

The use of the British Rail Class 43’s better known to most as Intercity 125’s is coming to an end.

St Philip's Marsh - GWR 43002 Sir Kenneth Grange.JPG

By far the best trains I have ever used as a passenger. I remember moving from Essex to the East Midlands in the 2000’s – still commuting to London and dreading the longer journey times. But the first morning was a revelation – a proper train, big windows, comfortable seats, air conditioning, a buffet car etc. In my head the journey time halved!

The trains on my previous commuter line seemed like cattle trucks in comparison. The HST’s ran on diesel as the line was not fully electrified. In those days that was a bonus as electrified lines were constantly having problems with overhead wires coming down. Of course, their carbon footprint is appalling. together with all the accessibility problems of a train designed in the 1970’s. There had to come a time when they needed to be replaced.

Unfortunately, the replacements have been terrible. Uncomfortable, formulaic, plastic monstrosities although I have not yet tried the new Hitachi Class 810 Aurora trainsets on my line (more on that in future perhaps – if I ever travel on trains regularly again after Covid!). But things do not look good. The life of the HST’s has been extended time and time again because they are so well designed. It looks like their life may be extended for a little bit longer as the replacement Hitachi Class 800 trains have been found to have cracks causing huge disruption on the lines using them:

It has been rumoured that some of the last HST’s available have been pulled out of storage and are being used on the Great Western Line to alleviate the problems:

Two trains next to each other at a mainline station:
HST: You know what Cracks Me Up?
Class 800: Just Don't.

Some would say the last ‘hurrah’ of British engineering at it’s best is being lost. There’s no denying they were well engineered to have lasted this long. Now it seems we have engineering that only last 10 years before something breaks.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with my water company who wanted to replace my water meter. When I enquired as to why they needed to replace it they quoted that the life expectancy of a water meter is 10 years and mine was 22 years’ old. Why on earth are we building things that only last 10 years that have to be replaced by digging up peoples drive-ways!

At best this is just bad engineering at worst it’s built in obsolescence that makes lots of money for a few people.

So it looks like the HSTs may be around for a little bit longer but many have now been mothballed, cut up for scrap or have made their way to a museum or heritage line. The future of rail travel will never be the same and certainly not as good.

EMR tribute to the HST: