Simpler rail fares? Yes please – but perhaps not like this, LNER

Departing soon: LNER Azuma train at Newcastle station (Charlotte Hindle)
Departing soon: LNER Azuma train at Newcastle station (Charlotte Hindle)

LNER is indisputably Britain’s flagship rail company. The state-owned train operator runs the vast majority of intercity trains on the UK’s most prestigious route: the East Coast main line linking London with Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland.

Front-line staff and the management deliver top-class transport. And the company knows how critical it is for the rail industry to attract more passengers and reverse the spiral of decline into which the network is sinking.

LNER is also a disruptor, in a positive sense. The rail firm has a mission to simplify ticketing: to reduce the confusion that sees one in three potential train passengers dissuaded by an arcane and anomalous ticketing system. it is learning from the success of the UK’s aviation industry – the fresh thinking of budget airlines, notably easyJet and Ryanair, to make high-quality, safe travel more affordable.

Perhaps you can sense a “but” coming?

Well, allow LNER to introduce its latest trick. “The biggest change to fares in 30 years. Our goal is to offer customers clearer ticket options, more modern flexibility and a better experience when travelling with LNER. We’re piloting the removal of the complicated and outdated off-peak and super off-peak fares.”

Let us pause there. Off-peak tickets are those you can buy on the day, a couple of minutes before the train leaves, and use on most trains; super off-peak tickets are cheaper but more restrictive in the services you can travel on.

Yes, off-peak tickets are complicated. And because of the way they are structured, with specific times excluded, they have unintended consequences such as a bulge in demand for the first departure after the peak restriction ends.

So, not ideal, but far cheaper than the “anytime” fare that almost nobody pays. In the case of Edinburgh to London, the cost of a fully flexible is £193.90, with the super off-peak less than half as much: £87. You can use it on any train from 7am onwards. The ticket is lso ultra-flexible: between Edinburgh, Newcastle and York you can choose to travel on CrossCountry or TransPennine if those departures are more convenient.

A less well-known benefit, I think, is the option to make unlimited stops along the way: between the Scottish and England capitals, you could pause for elevenses in Newcastle, lunch in York and an afternoon viewing of Peterborough cathedral, all for an £87 one-way ticket. I am not sure I agree that is an “outdated” notion.

Airlines can never offer such flexibility. Arguably off-peak ticket benefits deserve to be promoted as such to travellers from Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle to London.

Instead, LNER is scrapping the off-peak option from these stations, and replacing them with “a new semi-flexible fare”. The aim: to provide wriggle room for passengers who buy advance tickets but want to pay for the right to travel slightly earlier or later.

For an extra £20 on the advance fare (or one-third less, if you have a railcard), you buy the right to travel on any train 70 minutes before or 70 minutes after the booked train.

Generally two trains each hour connect Edinburgh and Newcastle with the English capital, giving passengers a choice of five possible services: the booked train, or one of the two immediately before or after it. The name: 70min Flex.

“Is that seven-zero in figures, no space, then m-i-n in lower case, and a space, and upper case F for Flex?”

The fact than my astute and diligent colleague Ben Parker had to check the exact style of the name suggests that LNER may need to find a snappier name: TimeFlex (all one word, Ben, upper case T and F) works for me.

With or without this stroke of marketing genius, the new ticket type may catch on. But while I am an avid and frequent consumer of off-peak rail tickets on LNER, I cannot envisage any circumstance in which I would pay the extra £20 for TimeFlex.

The new ticket looks to me like an overpriced insurance policy.

For journeys when I am not sure when I am going to be travelling, I know from experience that LNER offers decent last-minute advance fares for a suitable train.

I might need to wait an hour to save, say, £50, but East Coast main line stations are awash with excellent hostelries in which I can bide my time (and perhaps drink some of my savings).

When I need off-peak flexibility, I will simply buy a ticket from (say) Haymarket, a mile west of Edinburgh Waverley, from which they are still on sale.

Being free to travel on any old train will be slightly more complicated, but for me worthwhile.

Yet innovation should generally be applauded, and LNER knows its customers’ ways better than I do. So I am quite prepared to be proved wrong.