The McNulty review: The devil’s in the detail

McNulty report in danger of being an exercise in finding ways to price people off peak-time trains, dressed up as simplification.

By Alice Ridley of the Campaign for Better Transport

Although the headline messages in the long-awaited McNulty Rail Value for Money Study appear to be all about fairness and simplifying our complex fare system, there are a lot of dragons buried in the detail of the report which could lead to a lower-quality, more expensive railway for passengers.

While Philip Hammond, secretary of state for Transport, keeps hammering the message that passengers will benefit, these benefits are well in the future, while commuters are struggling now, with fare increases that are far outstripping pay rises.

Essentially, the proposals on fares mainly boil down to the avoidance of providing extra capacity, rather than making them affordable for passengers within a simple system. Truly radical, and potentially unworkable changes, are being proposed to the rules around off-peak fares. Depending on how this plays out, and how much freedom train operators are given on this matter, it could mean passengers are left with only two choices between highly restricted advance tickets or expensive tickets bought on the day.

Other key concerns include targeting regional railways for reduced service levels; potential staffing cuts; and proposals for massive car parks, which is a recipe for traffic jams around stations and risks turning people away from the train rather than increasing revenue.

The good news (yes, there is some) is Philip Hammond has committed to a fundamental review of fare structure, which presents a major opportunity to counter some of the threats contained in the report. This must be a root and branch review that includes passengers views and needs, not simply an exercise in finding ways to price people off peak-time trains, dressed up as simplification.

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