Rail fares: What does decision to ditch return train tickets mean for travellers?

At last: some good news on the railway. According to a briefing provided by the Department for Transport to the Telegraph, return train fares are to be scrapped in favour of simplified “single-leg” pricing.

This should see many one-way fares almost halved.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, is expected to confirm the move in a lecture to the railway industry on Tuesday.

But how will removing the many anomalies in the fares system affect your journey plans? These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the problem with train fares?

Many people feel they are too high, and this move should address some of those concerns. More broadly, the rail industry (now almost completely controlled by the government once again), is hobbled with an anachronous fares system.

It was devised in the 20th century by British Rail for entirely different times. Rules have been “baked in” since privatisation that typically make an off-peak single ticket almost the same as a return.

Between Durham and London, for example, the off-peak single costs £154, with a return costing only £1 more.

A day return from Brighton to London is £20.40, just 10p more expensive than a single.

This disparity is a deterrent to people who want to make journeys on a one-way basis (eg Brighton to London to Southampton to Brighton) or wish to combine a good-value fixed Advance ticket going out with a flexible off-peak journey on the return leg.

There is also some evidence that it leads to fare evasion, with people repeatedly using return halves of tickets that have not been checked.

What will happen?

There will just be three kinds of tickets:

  • Anytime singles, which can be used on any train and are generally expensive

  • Off-peak singles, which is what this measure is largely about

  • Advance singles, which as always are for specific trains and sold more cheaply than off-peak tickets

Does single-leg pricing happen anywhere at present?

In a very limited way on the East Coast main line. An experimental scheme with LNER between London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh has seen “single-leg” pricing on off-peak tickets for the past two years.

The move has proved extremely popular – and, inadvertently, has created even more anomalies. From Durham to London, for example, a one-way traveller should rationally buy a Newcastle-London ticket for £79 even though it is for a further distance; this saves £75 on the trip (breaks of journey are permitted, unlike on advance tickets, which makes this legal).

Now, the idea is to make single-leg pricing the norm.

Will fares go up or down?

Mostly downwards, with single fares almost halved – to exactly half the current return fare. People who routinely make return journeys should notice no difference (except the annual fare increase, this year 5.9 per cent).

The move is hoped to be “revenue-neutral,” ie the total raised from travellers remains the same – or “revenue-positive” if, as hoped, more people are attracted to the railway.

But there could be some circumstances where fares go up as a result of removing anomalies.

For example, between London and Didcot Parkway, the current one-way off-peak single is £29.90 for 53 miles. From Didcot to Bristol, the fare is £25.50 for 65 miles. People on the same train are paying 43 per cent per mile more for the first part than for the second. While the UK will certainly not go for a fixed price-per-mile, smoothing to remove perceived unfairness could lead to some passengers paying more.

Any other drawbacks?

Yes: when competition with other operators (rail or air) is significant.

One example is Edinburgh-London, on which LNER competes with Avanti West Coast and Lumo trains as well as British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair. For commercial reasons LNER might want to offer – say – a special flexible low-cost one-way ticket valid only on lightly used trains. But that could start to create anomalies all over again. LNER might simply price Advance tickets more aggressively to compete in such circumstances.

Elsewhere, “open-access” operators could tweak their flexible fares always to undercut the state-run competition.

When will the rail revolution happen?

That is the big problem. It is not inconceivable that the government may be replaced within a couple of years. Were this to happen, the issue could be placed back in the “too-difficult” tray where it has sat for decades.

But there is a vast amount of technical work to be done – as well as political persuasion in cases where particular towns or cities face increased fares.