Is Low-Fare better than Go-Nowhere?

Much trumpeting from National Express West Midlands regarding the direction of travel of their “low fare zones”.

Results from the first one – the Sandwell & Dudley Daysaver – appear encouraging: a 4% increase in passenger numbers and 2% increase in revenues, according to the operator.

All good on paper – especially in the short-term. But what about over the longer timescale?

There’s no doubt if you ask folk about bus fares, they want them cheaper. A friend of mine expresses the commonly-held view around these parts that you can travel quite a long distance for £2.40, but comparatively short trips seem proportionally much more expensive (NX’s “short hop” of around a mile is £1.50). But the alternative is a return to a hugely complicated system of fare tables, and a rather large army of individuals who would be willing to cheat the system, with the driver stuck in the cab and told not to leave it to get into confrontational situations.

So it’s commercial. And, actually, people love a bargain. Plus it actually works rather well. It’s even cheaper if you buy it through your mobile (£2.80 rather than £3), so as long as you’re making more than a single trip, and you’re only staying local (I.e. not venturing into Brum or Wolverhampton), it works out significantly cheaper than a £4.60 peak Daysaver. Weekly tickets also provide savings over the regional one.

That said, people have been caught out. A Facebook friend hopped on the bus with the local ticket for a meeting in Brum, forgetting she only had a local ticket and got stung by a revenue check going into Town! Ouch! An easy mistaka to maka, maybe, but how difficult is it to spot the determined fraudsters from the innocent mistakers?

But my biggest worry is in the longer term. Once local users have got used to paying less and seeing it as the norm, their attention may well spread to other aspects of their journey – and surely the concern here is the ever-increasing congestion snarl-up on our roads – the West Midlands being one of the worst affected anywhere in the country.

Low fares is but one part of the jigsaw. Smart, well turned-out products are another – and NX can’t be faulted with their role out of their Platinum spec kit. But the one thing that tops the list year after year above everything else is reliability. And that is the big concern. If people are going nowhere fast, will the low fare retain its current seemingly Midas touch?

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