Return tickets are set to be scrapped as Rishi Sunak gives the green light to long-awaited sweeping reforms of Britain’s railways.
Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, will next week announce plans for new ticketing arrangements as he outlines how the Government will address a crisis on the railways.
The rollout of “single-leg pricing” will be unveiled, The Sunday Telegraph has been told.
It means that two singles will equal a return – making return tickets redundant – having proved a success during trials with passengers.
Mr Harper will also commit to Great British Railways (GBR), a new public body that will bring the operation of track and trains under the same place for the first time. GBR was first unveiled by Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps in May 2021, but progress has stalled amid criticism that the body was tantamount to “nationalisation through the back door”.
During the hiatus, fears have grown that GBR would be scrapped. Mr Harper will show that “the idea that GBR is dead, is dead”, according to one person who has seen a draft of his speech announcing the reforms next week.
A Government source said that the speech was still being finalised this weekend. The new public body is expected to take on responsibility for timetabling and ticketing, which are currently controlled by the Department for Transport.
Ticket pricing reform ranks among the most complicated issues that remain unsolved, since privatisation by successive governments. There are 55 million different fares, according to trade body the Rail Delivery Group.
Mr Harper is expected to hint at the greater use of ticketing technology – a signal that paper tickets could soon be scrapped in favour of QR codes and smartcards similar to the Oyster Card in use across public transport in London.
Single-leg pricing was trialled in 2020 by east coast train operator LNER. Return tickets were dropped in favour of two single tickets at the same price.
At the time, LNER said: “Rail tickets can be confusing. We want to make choosing and buying rail tickets simpler and more transparent. We hope this new structure is more straightforward: there are no more return tickets – one journey requires just one ticket.”
Keith Williams, the former deputy chair of John Lewis and ex-chief executive of British Airways, is expected to attend Mr Harper’s speech, which will be delivered in Westminster on Tuesday evening. Mr Williams conducted a two-a-half-year “root and branch” review of the railways on behalf of the Government and was the first to propose the idea of a “guiding mind” public body to prevent state meddling in day-to-day train operations.
But critics argue that Mr Johnson’s interpretation of Mr Williams’s concept would have meant greater rather than less state intervention. Mr Williams previously envisaged the public body to be akin to the “Fat Controller” after the cantankerous character from Thomas the Tank Engine. Sources say that under Mr Sunak, the Fat Controller “will be put on a diet”.
Fears persist, however, that GBR will throttle the role of the private sector on the railways.
Former minister John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, said: “Rather than bureaucrats or politicians pretending they know how much each passenger’s journey should cost, why not get lots of different rail firms competing to beat each others’ prices so tickets are always as cheap as possible?”
MP for Blackpool North Paul Maynard, rail minister under Boris Johnson added: “Mr Harper’s speech is long awaited. We are all keen to understand the shape and scope of GBR, and how the balance will be struck between the guiding mind and fat controller.
“As always, I’ll be looking to see the passenger’s interest placed firmly at the centre of policy making – and a recognition we need to get the passengers back if the railway is to avoid more painful times ahead.”