A government-backed ‘Great British Rail sale’ to get travelers back on trains will cut the cost of a million journeys next month, but unions have dismissed it as a gimmick.
The Department for Transport said the offer ‘further supported families with the cost of living’ at a time of high inflation.
While campaigners and industry welcomed the move as a first step, Labor said it would bring little relief. Only around 1% of all journeys made are likely to qualify for the promotion, which targets off-peak intercity travel, meaning even fewer commuters will see a reduction in fares.
Nonetheless, the offer, billed as a “first-of-its-kind Great British Rail sale”, was enthusiastically endorsed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in a bizarre promotional video.
Shapps, a former salesman who once ran a web marketing business under the alias of Michael Green, puts his skills to full use at various points in the video as he dons a hoodie, sunglasses, a backpack and wields a rubber crab to advertise trips to destinations from Cornwall to Edinburgh. He ends by declaring: “It’s time to get real”, before boarding an LNER train.
The fares, which include a single London to Edinburgh for £22, Manchester to Newcastle for £10.30 and Birmingham to Bristol Temple Meads for £12.60, will launch on a Great British Rail sales site on Tuesday .
Discounted tickets will only be available for a period of five weeks before the next mid-term holiday, from April 25 to May 27, and are not expected to be available on the first holiday weekend in May.
The Campaign for Better Transport said the sale was a helpful first step in getting people back on trains as the pandemic subsides. Former transport minister Norman Baker said: “It can show the Treasury that the way to raise revenue is to cut fares, not to keep raising them and driving people away from the railway. “
However, unions and labor rejected the scheme. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘This headline-grabbing stuff won’t help commuters at all…Workers need affordable train travel every day.’
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘The rail system and the traveling public don’t need short-term gimmicks. We need a properly funded railroad that consistently delivers good value and reliability.
Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh said: ‘This temporary respite will be little comfort to passengers who have lost thousands of dollars to soaring fares since 2010.’
Advice to avoid traveling during the pandemic and the subsequent shift to working from home has seen a swath of regular passengers desert the rail. Passenger levels are only back to around 75% of pre-Covid levels, according to the latest provisional figures from the DfT.
While much of the industry argued that price reductions were needed to attract people to rail, fares continued to rise. Regulated rail fares, set by the government, rose last month by 3.8% in line with RPI inflation, after rising 1% above RPI inflation in 2021.
The DfT said sector reforms due to be introduced after the Williams-Shapps review could see more network-wide sales on rail. It has also introduced subscriptions for part-time or flex workers to cope with changing travel habits since the pandemic, although many commuters question their value.
Rail operators and Network Rail have been told by the DfT to find cost savings of 10% to 15%, after the Treasury spent an additional £15billion to subsidize rail for lost revenue over the two last years.