Plummer is also keen to offer top railway executives as spokesmen for the railway. People like Tim Shoveller or Chris Burchell, for example?
Where do you think the Southern strike will end up? It’s got to end at some point?
“It has, but I’m reluctant to speculate how quickly that’s going to end,” he replies carefully. “We want to be clear about what the industry is trying to achieve - modernise the railway, and deliver better service for customers, better opportunities for staff and better value for taxpayers. That’s what this is all about, and that’s what we’ll keep focusing on rather than speculating on what disputes are going to happen.”
What about the thorny subject of fares? This has always been a running sore, and it’s become worse as work patterns and lifestyles have steadily separated from the fares structure needed to support them?
“I would firstly differentiate fares and ticketing, although they are clearly massively related,” he begins. “On ticketing, we have clear plans at a relatively high level of what we want to do to make use of modern technology - how people buy and use tickets and get permission to travel. The Secretary of State has been very clear that we should accelerate that plan - he’s not saying we should be doing something different.”
Plummer is talking about barcode travel, ticketing by phone, tap-and-pay and other current ways of paying. RDG Managing Director of Customer Experience Jacqueline Starr told me last year she wanted to see an end to the familiar mag stripe ticket within a couple of years. That seems a tall order… but we’ll see. Plummer conveys quiet confidence.
“On fares, I’m absolutely passionate that we use this opportunity now to have the debate, build on BROR, and have the conversation about what we should do differently for the longer term, rather than have just a fiddling around the edges. That’s long term, but we also need progress in the short term. There are things that we need to do to simplify fares, and this in turn will enable us to to accelerate ticketing issues. For example, there are things we can do on fares which will actually help us to modernise ticket machines.
“We do need to show some early wins to gain confidence, but we do absolutely have to have an eye to where we are going over the longer term and be ambitious about that, too. Technology is changing very quickly, and we have to recognise that expectations are massively different but confront these questions. At the moment these conversations are not quite happening, so people get very frustrated with the fares system. But knee-jerk simple answers almost certainly aren’t going to be right.”
Ah! The feared law of unintended consequence in changing a very complex system - revenues are driven down?
“The danger is that this results in less revenue, which means less money available for improvement. So we need to deliver change with care. Government has to make the high-level choice about the levels of fares - we all need to be honest that they make that choice.”
After many years of pressure and increasing criticism – not least from RAIL – about the urgent need for fares reform there is, finally, movement. Hooray. Not before time. In early February RDG announced trials on radical fare reform on routes between London and Sheffield and Scotland in an attempt to address some of criticisms. These included very high headline fares which compared very badly with European and sometimes even international air fares, horrific complexity and resulting confusion ticket machines which don’t give the cheapest and best value fare and the disparity between existing through fare rates and much cheaper ‘split ticketing’.
“ We simply have to tackle this problem and whilst there are major concerns about how reform will work in practice we simply can’t and won’t know that until we actually try doing it significantly differently. So that’s what we’re doing.”
This isn’t straightforward and Plummer points out that a good number of historic rules and regulations which have stood in the way in the past have been suspended for the trial. So what happens if the reforms work well – too well – and passengers find they can get significantly lower fares and that revenues are indeed driven down?
“In that case, both industry and Government will face some hard choices which will have to be made.” He is also quick to stress that the search for simplicity is one of the reasons that ticket machines sometimes don’t offer the cheapest journey. “In any reform like this, not everyone will win. It is inevitable that some passengers will find themselves paying more for some journeys that is simply unavoidable in a reform of the depth we are seeking here. We shall see. Sometimes, train operators fears are unfounded. They resisted the application of London’s Oyster to the capital’s local services in fear that revenues would fall. They actually increased. This will be an interesting trial.
While train operators are routinely excoriated for fare increases, it is (of course) the Government which sets regulated fares, including season tickets. This is very poorly understood, and each year the DfT stands back while in early January the wider media tears into ‘rip-off rail fares’, usually blaming TOCs for ‘profiteering’.
Plummer acknowledges: “The industry needs to be better at saying to Government: ‘this is what we could deliver, this is the vision for a deliverable fares structure, this is what we need from you to make this happen.’
“Opportunities coming up with franchises are very clear. We pretty much know what we want to do in terms of the changes in well-meaning regulations that were put in place to protect customers, but which are now out of date and standing in the way of progress.”
“Like the requirement to provide fares for every single ticket combination you can imagine, and the fact that the regulated fare is the return fare. In order to simplify, we need to make ticketing more responsive to what customers actually want. We need to move away from that return fare base regulation and focus on the single fare.
“That true transformation would enable innovation in franchising while still providing proper passenger protection - but it’s a very big change.”
Plummer has a stark warning both for those advocating fare reform and the Government that would have to deliver it.
“A major difficulty is that while there would be many many winners, it’s also true that a few people would end up paying higher fares. If this means that we can’t change - then we will never change. That’s the debate that we must have.”
Are you foretelling the end of the return fare?
“No - I’m saying that if the return fare is offered, we needn’t regulate it in the way we do. What we do at the moment restricts innovation and flexibility.”