UK train tickets could be priced like airline seats in rail shake-up

<span>Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA</span>
Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

Train tickets in Britain could be priced like airline seats under a demand-based system being trialled by the government as part of a wider rail shake-up.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, announced on Tuesday evening that fares on some long-distance trains run by LNER on the East Coast line will fluctuate according to availability.

He said the state-run train company would also move towards scrapping return tickets across its network, as a test for whether the idea could eventually be rolled out across the wider railway. The trial follows a successful pilot of selling only single-leg tickets on some longer intercity journeys such as London-Edinburgh since 2020.

According to the Department for Transport, the system should reduce most single fares, which can be almost the same price as a return under traditional fare practices.

The long-awaited ticketing shake-up will also include more contactless and pay-as-you-go fares for train journeys across the south-east of England.

Delivering the annual George Bradshaw address to rail industry leaders in central London on Tuesday night, Harper also promised to continue with reforms of the crisis-hit railway announced by his predecessor, Grant Shapps, under the Johnson government.

He vowed to enhance the role of the private sector on the network, calling for companies to be involved “not just in running services but in maximising competition, innovation and revenue growth right across the industry”.

Harper also reaffirmed the long-term plan to create a new Great British Railways to act as “a guiding mind to coordinate the entire network”, saying moves to create the arms-length public-sector body would continue despite widespread pessimism after delays in legislation. The winner of a competition to pick the new rail HQ would be announced by Easter, Harper said.

The transport secretary said rail had to be a “truly commercially led industry … for me, that is non-negotiable.” He said private train operators as well as a reformed Network Rail would both be “getting a seat at the table”, and ministerial involvement should be reduced.

Currently, Harper said, railways “have a broken model, unable to adapt to customer needs, and financially unsustainable”.

He added: “Left untreated, we will drive passengers away with poor performance, which leads to fewer services, which will drive more passengers away and so on and so on. Only major reform can break that cycle of decline.”

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of industry body Rail Partners, welcomed the changes to fare policy, saying it was “an idea whose time had come” after years of pushing for reform.

The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “Whichever ticket you buy, passengers are paying more for less under the Conservatives’ broken rail system.

“Thirteen years of failure has seen fares soar, more services than ever cancelled, while failing operators continue to be handed millions in taxpayers’ cash.”

Fares will rise in England by 5.9% from 5 March – the largest rise in a decade, despite the increase being held significantly below inflation for the first time since privatisation.

The government has demanded significant cost savings from the industry after the pandemic left annual revenues approximately £2bn lower than pre-Covid levels.

Reform of the railway has been regarded as urgent since an industry review was commissioned in 2018 as franchises failed. Reliability on some major routes has collapsed over the last year, even in periods when Britain’s railway has not been affected by the most widespread strikes in decades.