A government-backed “Great British Rail sale” to tempt travellers back to trains will slash the cost of a million journeys next month, but unions have dismissed it as a gimmick.
The Department for Transport said the offer was “further supporting families with the cost of living” at a time of high inflation.
While campaigners and the industry welcomed the move as a first step, Labour said it would offer little relief. Only about 1% of all journeys taken are likely to benefit from the promotion, which is targeted at intercity travel at quiet times, meaning even fewer commuters will see any reduction in fares.
Nonetheless, the offer, billed as a “first-of-its-kind Great British Rail sale”, has been enthusiastically endorsed by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, in a bizarre promotional video.
Shapps, a former salesman who once ran a web marketing business under the pseudonym Michael Green, employs his skills to full effect at various points in the video donning a hoodie, sunglasses, rucksack and handling a rubber crab to advertise travel to locations 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 journey from London to Edinburgh for £22, Manchester to Newcastle for £10.30, and Birmingham to Bristol Temple Meads for £12.60, will be launched on Tuesday on a Great British Rail sale site.
The cut-price tickets will only be available for a five-week period before the next half-term holiday, from 25 April to 27 May, and are not expected to be available over the first May bank holiday weekend.
The Campaign for Better Transport said the sale was a useful first step in getting people back on to trains as the pandemic eases. Former transport minister Norman Baker said: “It can show the Treasury that the way to increase income is to cut fares, not keep ratcheting them up and driving people off the railway.”
However, unions and Labour dismissed the scheme. The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “This headline grabbing gimmick won’t help commuters at all … Working people need affordable rail travel every day.”
The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said: “The railway system and the travelling public do not need short-term gimmicks. We need a properly funded railway that provides permanently good value and reliability.”
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “This temporary respite will be small comfort to passengers who had thousands taken out of their pockets from soaring fares since 2010.”
Advice to avoid travel during the pandemic and the subsequent shift to working from home has seen a swathe of regular passengers desert the railway. Passenger levels have only returned to about 75% of pre-Covid levels, according to the latest provisional DfT figures.
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While much of the industry has argued price cuts were needed to attract people back to rail, fares have continued to rise. Regulated rail fares, set by the government, rose last month by 3.8%, in line with RPI inflation, after increasing by 1% above RPI inflation in 2021.
The DfT said reforms to the sector due to be introduced after the Williams-Shapps review could see more such network-wide sales across rail. It has also introduced season tickets for part-time or flexible workers to address changing travel patterns since the pandemic, although many commuters questioned their worth.
Train operators and Network Rail have been told by the DfT to find cost savings of 10% to 15%, after the Treasury spent an extra £15bn subsidising rail for lost revenue over the past two years.