‘Ruthless overhaul’ of train fare structure and pricing needed, warns rail expert

·4-min read
Tickets please: Avanti West Coast express in Cumbria (Stuart Walker)
Tickets please: Avanti West Coast express in Cumbria (Stuart Walker)

Five years after the government promised to make it easier for rail passengers “to choose the best-value fare for their journey,” a leading rail expert has rated the success at seven out of 10.

But Mark Smith, founder of the Seat61.com website, warns a “ruthless root and branch overhaul” of the fare structure and pricing is essential for the railways to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

At a rail forum in 2015, the-then rail minister, Paul Maynard, promised a series of enhancements for passengers. He vowed to:

  • Improve the information passengers are offered so they can make an informed choice of ticket

  • Enable innovative new ticket products to emerge in the retail market

  • Increase and improve the scope of where and the ways passengers can buy tickets

  • End jargon such as ‘any permitted route’ on tickets

In addition the option to buy Advance tickets on the day of travel was to be extended, and warnings given when the supply of these fares was running low.

At the time, Mr Maynard said: “The ticket-buying experience is all too often complicated and hard to navigate and I am committed to working with the industry to make it simpler.

“We want a more modern and passenger-focused fares and ticketing system which takes advantage of all the benefits of new technology.

“Rail passengers must be able to trust that they are getting the best possible deal every time they travel.”

Five years on, The Independent asked Mark Smith – a former British Rail manager – to review progress.

“To be fair, I’d give them seven out of 10 for carrying out the actions that they said they would.

“There’s now easier access to a plain-English statement of what a route’s specific Off-Peak time restrictions actually are.

“For longer distance journeys, booking sites now tell people when there are only a few Advance fares left at the price they’re seeing.

“My ticket from Haddenham in Buckinghamshire to London now has a more meaningful route ‘High Wycombe’ rather than saying ‘Any permitted’.”

But Mr Smith said he had awarded the score “for a sticking plaster, not a cure – for better explaining the complexity of British rail fares, not for making them simple”.

The founder of Seat61.com said: “A ruthless root and branch overhaul of both fares structure and pricing has now become essential to support a post-pandemic return to the railway.

“We need a fare structure that can be sold effectively through today’s self-service channels – websites, apps, ticket machines, and contactless touch-in-touch-out systems – and for commuter travel, one which recognises changes to working patterns.

“What we currently have is a system designed for shoving Edmondson card tickets through ticket windows.”

Printed tickets carrying serial numbers were introduced by a stationmaster named Thomas Edmondson in the 1840s.

Beyond technology, though, Mr Smith said: “We need to restore consumer confidence and trust in rail pricing, an objective that is hard to quantify in economic terms so is often under-rated.”

He prescribes just three fare types – Anytime, Off-Peak and Advance – based on single-leg pricing, to reduce complexity and make it easy to combine fare types.

Great British Railways will soon be able to co-ordinate fares nationally,” said Mr Smith. “It’s vital that they seize this opportunity and that the Department for Transport – and Treasury – give them the freedom to act.”

Control of trains and track is soon to be brought under a new public sector body named Great British Railways. The organisation will own and manage rail infrastructure, issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets.

The government says: “Great British Railways will simplify the current mass of confusing tickets with new flexible season tickets, and a significant roll-out of more convenient Pay As You Go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones.

“A new Great British Railways website will sell tickets and a single compensation system for operators in England will provide a simple system for passengers to access information and apply for refunds.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, fare revenue of around £10bn annually covered most of the running costs of the railway. Ticket receipt and passenger usage have fallen by about half compared with 2019.

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