Rail fares need an overhaul to help ‘level up’ the North

There are currently some 55,000 different fares on offer in a system which has come in for fierce criticism

Boris Johnson risks falling short of his pledge to “level up” all regions of the UK due to a “complicated and restrictive” rail fare structure, industry leaders and politicians have warned, particularly following the impact of Covid-19. 

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said the current system made it “difficult to offer the more flexible fares and ticketing options that passengers will increasingly demand”. There are 55,000 different rail fares on offer across the UK, varying in prices depending on whether fares are split between destinations, between groups of people, or if people own a railcard.

Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the former Transport secretary, said the fare system was a “minefield of complications”. 

This complexity acts as an obstacle to train travel for work and business in the regions, the RDG trade body said. It risks denting the Government’s commitment to "level up" more deprived areas of the UK, and lessen wealth divides. The pledge had been central to the Conservatives' election campaign last year. 

Concerns over the effect of the fare structure on divides come just days after the Prime Minister faced a backlash over what his planning overhaul would mean for Northern investment. 

Tory MPs told Mr Johnson planning reforms to allow the construction of more than 300,000 houses a year could attract more developers to the south-east of England, rather than the North.

Rail leaders pointed to the threat of the fare structure in a submission to the “levelling up” inquiry, which is being conducted by MPs who serve on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee.

The submission urged for changes to the system saying: “Replacing the current set of fares’ regulations would allow for much greater flexibility and a better range of fares for travellers.”

Current and former MPs over the weekend echoed the call for an overhaul, branding the fare structure “very difficult to understand”.

Sir Patrick added: “It goes back to pre-franchising and pre-privatisation. We’re still left with an inherent system which is incredibly difficult to get around. There is now a unique opportunity here to look at the whole structure.”

Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate, said he had been promised the fare structure would “be sorted out by next year, but obviously this sits across a botched privatisation model”.

He added: "Trying to identify what the cheapest ticket is to get from A to B is really difficult."

Last week, meanwhile, Greg Clark, the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells and business secretary under Theresa May, urged Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, to make changes to ticketing.

Mr Clark said it was “a ludicrous anachronism and an outrageous injustice that we have the same fare structure for workers in 2020 as we did in 1950”. 

He said that the five-day-a-week commute would not return once a Covid vaccine had been rolled out. A vaccine is not expected until, at earliest, the end of the year. Many companies have, however, already started reining in their office footprint, and suggesting staff will be offered more flexible working for the foreseeable future. 

Last month, a survey found that more than half of workers never expected to return to a five-day working week in the office. 

A study by TalkTalk discovered that almost 60pc of people reported feeling more productive working from home. 

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “Passengers deserve punctual and reliable journeys at a fair price.

“That is why we are investing billions into modernising the network and working with industry to try to provide ­commuters with more flexibility and better value.”