After pledging to freeze fares "throughout 2016" Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs is wasting no time in raising at least some of them in 2017, with an increase announced for 2nd January.
There is some good news. Ordinary single and return fares, as well as the popular Day Rider and Day Rider Plus tickets remain unchanged at April 2015 levels whilst the bargain "Under 19" Dayriders for the Bay Area and for "Lancashire" are increased by only 20p and 40p respectively
The "Lancashire" Day Rider, which extends as far east as Blackburn, south to Bolton and Wigan and west to Southport and Liverpool is up by only 30p to £7.70 (the Under 19 version rises to £4.40), whilst the Explorer ticket is unchanged at £10.80
The weekly Megarider tickets rise from £14.50 to £15 (Bay Area) and £20.50 to £21,50 for Bay Area Plus. Increases of between 3.5 and 4.7%
The bad news concerns the company's longer 4-weekly tickets, which offer discounts for 28 days travel and it is these increases that have given rise to complaints.
These tickets come in two versions: The basic "Megarider", which is a one-off ticket valid for 28 days and a "Megarider Xtra" which is the same ticket, but renewed automatically every 28 days and paid for by direct debit.
In the smaller "Bay Area"(which extends to Overton, Warton, Pine Lakes, The Kellets, Halton, Denny Beck and Galgate, Hampson Lane) the Megarider price rises by 7.5% from £53 (£13.25 per week) to £56.99 (£14.25 a week), whilst the Megarider Xtra is increased from £52 per month (£12.00 per week) to £56.99 per month (£13.15 a week) a 9.5% hike.
But it is the larger "Bay Area Plus" (extending to Cote Green, Kirkby Lonsdale, Ingleton and Forton) that the sees biggest rises. Here, the Megarider Plus price goes up from £75 to £82.99 an increase of 10.6% whilst passengers paying by direct debit for a "Megarider Plus Xtra" ticket are hit by a swingeing 32% rise from £63 to £82.99 per month.
The Megarider and Megarider Xtra tickets are sold as smartcard products and are bought over the internet, and give huge cost savings to the company in administrative and "sales" costs. Most commercial organisations are keen to move customers on to payment by Direct Debit, where feasible, so as to ensure loyalty and continuity of purchase. It does seem strange therefore that Stagecoach appears to be penalising its regular customers, whilst leaving charges to more casual users unchanged.
Stagecoach defended the increase to the Bus Users' Group by pointing out that the Megarider and Megarider Plus tickets offered large discounts over daily fares and that particularly in the case of the Megarider Plus Xtra (the ticket with the 32% price increase) the level of discount could not be sustained.
The example quoted in the Lancaster Guardian's online report was of a young person travelling from Caton to Lancaster and back each schoolday using a Megarider Plus Xtra ticket. Such a passenger has the following options for five days a week travel:
Five Adult Return Tickets @ £5.70 = £28.50 (the "base price")
Five Under-19s Lancashire Dayriders @ £4 = £20 ( 30% discount over base price)
(an adult passenger would get no discount by buying a Bay Plus DayRider at £6.90)
A 7-Day Megarider Plus @ £20.50 ( 28% discount over base price)
A 28-day Megarider Plus Xtra @ £63 equivalent to £15.75 a week (45% discount over base price)
Stagecoach may therefore have a point that the level of discount offered on the Megarider Plus Xtra is significantly more generous than the alternatives. Even at the new rate of £82.99 ( a regrettable move away from "round pound" pricing) or £19.15 a week the ticket still offers a relatively generous discount of 33% over the cost of five return fares bought daily, although no doubt existimg passengers won't see it that way!