Flexible season tickets being considered to drive office return

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The government and the rail industry are working to introduce flexible season tickets to encourage employees to return to the office, Boris Johnson has indicated.

One option is a ticket that can be used three days in seven, while another is 12 tickets that can be used on a particular route each month, according to reports.

Johnson said at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday: “We are working at pace with rail companies to try to deliver new products in terms of ticketing to ensure not just better value, but also enable people to get back to work in a flexible way.”

The government is set to launch a renewed plan to encourage more people back to the workplace, after reports emerged that city centres and business parks were turning into “ghost towns” and local businesses such as coffee outlets and dry cleaning shops were suffering.

However, the Bank of England has warned that a mass return to central London and other major city centres will risk further Covid-19 outbreaks and would not be possible under current social distancing guidelines.

Alex Brazier, the bank’s executive director for financial stability strategy and risk, told the commons Treasury Committee: “With Covid safe guidelines, it’s not possible to use office space – particularly in central London and dense places like that – with the intensity that we used to use it. So it’s actually not possible to bring lots of people back very suddenly.

“Because of those constraints I don’t think we can expect to see a sudden and sharp return of lots of people to the very dense office environments that we were used to. We should expect a more phased return depending on the public health outcomes that we’ll see over the coming weeks and months.”

Yesterday, former Conservative cabinet minister Damian Green told the Prime Minister that many office staff would only want to return to the workplace for two or three days a week.

He asked Johnson to “encourage the rail industry to introduce immediately flexible season tickets”.

Due to the perceived success of home working during the lockdown, with numerous studies suggesting that employees tend to be more productive while working from home, many commuters have not yet returned to the office after the lockdown. Many organisations are considering abandoning their offices or moving to a model where staff are able to work from home more often.

Rail passenger numbers have fallen dramatically since the lockdown and are still a long way off last year’s levels. Last Friday, the number of passengers was only 31% of the pre-lockdown average.

Some rail franchises including Great Western Rail have submitted proposals to the government for flexible tickets, as well as multi-buy offers.

Small-scale trials of new flexible season tickets were launched on Govia Thameslink Railway earlier this year, but the results were hampered by the restrictions introduced earlier in the pandemic.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents passenger and freight rail companies, confirmed it was working with the government to introduce more flexible travel options.

Director of nations and regions Robert Nisbet said: “Train companies fully understand that the way people are working and travelling is changing and that new types of ticket are needed to reflect that.

“We are working with the Department for Transport on proposals for flexible season tickets and will be putting forward suggestions for how this could work very shortly, as well as continuing to push for wide ranging regulatory reform of the entire fares system.”

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