Drop in rail season tickets attributed to increase in flexible working

Experts call for greater recognition of modern working patterns in a system that ‘punishes’ part-time employees

Rail bosses have attributed a decline in season ticket purchases to a growing number of commuters working flexibly and eschewing the standard five-day working week.

The latest figures from the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) showed season ticket journeys between April and June this year fell 7.5 million on the previous year to the lowest level since 2010/11, while overall ticket sales increased 2.4 per cent over the same period.

The number of journeys taken using season tickets has fallen 16.8 per cent in the last three years.

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail providers, said the change in behaviour marked a move to a more flexible, pay-as-you-go approach and was a sign that commuters were working in more varied ways.

“As working patterns change, many commuters are realising that they are being held back by an outdated, rigid fares system where the traditional season ticket no longer meets their needs.” he said. 

Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, supported calls for changes to ticketing to reflect modern working practices. “The calls to liberalise the season ticket system seem very sensible,” he said. “Essentially, people who work part time are being punished because they can't get value for money out of a season ticket that's based on five days a week.”

He added that women, who make up the majority of part-time workers, were disproportionately affected by the problem, and argued that a fairer, pro-rata system for commuter train tickets was not “technologically unfeasible”. 

Boys added that employers needed to empathise with staff, but said: “Unfortunately, there are some big macro trends that are beyond employers’ control. We see that commuting times are increasing, there's a housing crisis and people have to live further away from work. 

“All you can really do is be aware of those factors. Everyone's different – they have different distances to travel and different responsibilities outside work. It's about having empathy and a healthy, flexible working system that allows people to balance their needs outside and inside work.”

Emma Stewart, CEO of flexible working consultancy Timewise, said the majority of the workforce now undertook some form of flexible working, and commuters needed “more flex from the rail network”.

“Society and the shape of how we work has changed – and yet the systems that supply the labour force, like recruitment and transport, still haven’t caught up,” she said.

Recent data from Timewise showed that in 2017, 63 per cent of full-time employees worked flexibly in some way, and 84 per cent of men and 91 per cent of women either already make use of flexible working arrangements or would like them.

The figures from the ORR showed that nearly half of all rail journeys (45.4 per cent) made in 2018/19 were for the purpose of commuting.

In the three months between April and June 2019, the number of off-peak tickets purchased increased by 8.2 per cent compared with the previous year, accounting for 35.4 per cent of all tickets sold. Season tickets accounted for slightly less, at 32.5 per cent.