The case for a new ‘Economy Class’ in rail tickets
Yet from observing the behaviour of such crowds, the government could learn a great deal – Ministers and officials in the Department of Transport in particular. In this instance, they should note the willingness of many consumers to persevere with standing if there is a bargain to be had.
So here is an idea to challenge the problem of train overcrowding (which, in essence, is a manifestation of too low a price charged during the peak period). Make a crowded carriage desirable for some passengers! This apparent paradox is achievable by (formally) offering a lower quality product than current standard class but at a (compensatory) lower price, in the process increasing the number rail ‘products’ passengers can choose from.
Products well differentiated by quality and price, are found throughout the market economy and the airline business (another branch of public transport) provides a prime example. When flying between London and many European cities, air passengers may choose between different airlines offering distinctly different qualities of service at rather different prices. British rail has been slow to follow suit; its departmental overlord has planned for a relatively limited, standardised service quality (as is the want of monopoly providers) at a plethora of generally time-dependent prices. In practice, the quality offering has proved to be unpredictable and random, and the fare structure confusing.
Specifically, commuter trains could have a high-density section, (say a couple of carriages, probably at the front) wherein there are no seats. Commuters choosing to occupy these carriages stand as a matter of course but at a fare priced at a discount, say 20%.
Instead of as now paying a standard class fare for a seat lottery, standing commuters would be compensated for doing so. With an appropriate fare discount (diverting sufficient passengers) there is another bonus; for commuters choosing to pay standard class fares it should be possible to meet their expectation of a seat and a more agreeable journey. They will no longer be hemmed-in by standing passengers (and a catering trolley service might be possible).
But it is not only the passenger who stands to gain, taxpayers too. Faced with the crowding problem the Department’s current strategy is to lengthen trains which also means lengthening or (at Waterloo) adding platforms, increasing depot capacity and often relocating signalling equipment, accomplished at a huge (marginal) cost. Adopting the proposal would at least defer these expenditures and ease the pace at which the nationalised Network Rail organisation accumulates debt (now exceeding £50bn).
There are, potentially, still further advantages. Fewer carriages than currently planned means lower maintenance costs and leasing costs for train companies. Carriages stripped of seating are lighter (by at least one tonne) thus saving on traction costs. There are undoubted costs too associated with the proposal, but probably modest: the price of re-jigging a couple or so carriages, selling a new ticket class and the financial cost to the train operators of the discounted fare, perhaps offset by opportunities for better revenue protection and the additional rail product attracting marginally more passengers.
Learning more about these pluses and minuses would require some experimentation to gauge consumer reaction. Let the Department of Transport be bold enough to trial the approach on one commuter line. Old British Rail was not afraid to experiment, once having tried out one-and-a-half decked carriages on the Dartford – Charing Cross service between 1949 and 1971.
Ultimately, as a nation we should accept the fact that railways are a very expensive mode of transport. We should not complain about increases in real fares and then expect fulfilment of our costly aspiration for all peak commuters to have a seat.
Economy class offers an opportunity to come to terms with this dilemma, to replace the current unpredictable, sometimes chaotic, outcome when purchasing a peak period ticket, for an honest one where the quality of service provided really does match the offer price.