Such is the cash-strapped state of the rail industry, that National Express East Coast (NXEC) is considering charging passengers to reserve a seat. This comes days after the franchisee celebrated its first birthday by offering single fares up and down the East Coast Main Line for £5.
NXEC confirmed on Monday that it could charge its passengers £1 per reservation. Seat reservations - compulsory for advance-purchase rail tickets - have been completely free for decades. With the company admitting that some of its advance-purchase tickets are costed too cheaply, thus increasing some of the hitherto "miniature prices", a further stealth increase could soon be added to these tickets.
In a crucial meeting last Tuesday between public transport executives and the transport secretary Geoff Hoon, the economy featured high on the agenda after the latest revenue figures showed an alarmingly low growth rate at some of the country's biggest franchises.
Figures circulated to members of the Association of Train Operating Companies show that revenue growth at intercity franchises - National Express East Coast, Virgin Trains, CrossCountry, First TransPennine, First Great Western and East Midlands Trains - was 4% in November and December. Rail industry insiders said several franchises would have pencilled in higher revenue growth figures for their contracts. One of the shortlisted bidders for the east coast franchise, knocked out by a more aggressive offer, had factored in revenue growth of 8% in November and December for its bid.
NXEC claim that the seat reservation fee's potential implementation is to combat the high number of reserved seats that are not used. How is this a problem? Those ad hoc travellers who've purchased flexible tickets where reservations are not possible can sit in the reserved seats whose occupants have not shown. I've lost count of the number of times I've boarded a train in central London with 80% reservations and managed to sit quite happily in a seat that's been reserved but whose occupant has not shown. I suspect this may not be a truthful reason!
Not on the same scale is WHSmith, who've recently started charging customers 1p per carrier bag. A penny is hardly likely to deter people from not requesting one, surely?. I certainly wasn't but noticed that my penny purchase was not rung into the till, nor was the penny physically placed inside the cash drawer. At least WHSmith's reasoning, while being pretty feeble, is unequivocal. NXEC's is not. With no prospect of DfT hand-outs as the franchise is a mere year old, and with low growth (4%) being reported when NXEC's own estimates are far greater than this, it may well be just a ploy to attract more revenue.
We've been told that Virgin Trains will not be charging for seat reservations.