Everyone knows that the fares system is a complete mess. No other product has such a complex pricing structure. Nor indeed, does any other railway in the world have such a maze of fares.
The reason for the complexity is, of course, buried in history and, oddly, has been made worse by the use of new technology. British Rail had a relatively simple set of fares though it began to offer cheaper fares at off-peak times in order to boost load factors on little used services. So we got savers, now called off-peak, fares but also, later, super off peak, whose use was more restricted. Then with privatisation it got really complicated with the addition of many advanced tickets – a boon to many passengers, of course, but adding another major ticket type to an already large range – and deals that were specific to a particular train company.
Add in season tickets, various occasional offers by train companies, and the fact that because fares are set by individual operators, it can often be considerably cheaper to buy two separate tickets for a journey on one train, and you get one hell of a mess. There are other absurdities, too. A friend of mine found that it was much cheaper to buy a ticket from London to Holyhead for a connection onto the ferry to Ireland, than to Bangor which, of course, is nearer the capital.
Under privatisation, too, we got regulated fares – off peak and season tickets – and unregulated fares – the rest. Of course most TSSA members are familiar with this range of tickets and can weave their way round the complexity. But pity the poor passenger.
Organisations like Passenger Focus have long been campaigning for change and simplification. In response, the government has embarked on a fares review – about which little has been heard recently – and now the Office of Rail Regulation, in a report published in early June, has picked up the cudgels on the part of passengers, focussing on the information provided to people buying tickets.
As an aside, this represents a departure for the ORR which has, until now, been mainly focussed on backroom issues such as the costs of Network Rail, rather than passenger-facing matters such as fares. However, this is part of a shift – welcomed by some, but opposed by the Association of Train Operating Companies – towards the ORR take an interest in the behaviour of train operators and responding to passenger complaints. In fact, there is something of a gap left by the abolition of the SRA which had the role of franchising director, created at privatisation, because the oversight of franchises by the Department – which also lets them – has been less than thorough.
The ORR report highlights, amongst other issues, the inadequacy of Ticket Vending Machines in the face of this complexity. The truth is that TVMs are fine if people are buying standard straightforward tickets but they cannot cope with unusual demands. Moreover, even if they were made more sophisticated so that they could cope with a greater range of fares, people purchasing tickets from them would not be assess all the alternatives and therefore would be frustrated. take in all the information. Even an experienced rail traveller like me has found it difficult, at times, to assess what ticket is valid and I therefore overpaid because of the lack of clarity. Moreover, TVMs, cannot cope with advance tickets, season tickets of longer than a week and group tickets.
Nor is new technology the answer as, ironically it has added to the complexity. We now have web only fares as yet another type of ticket, and trying to buy tickets through the train operator websites can be as hard as the Times Crossword.
So there is an irony here. In order to be able to close ticket offices to save money, the operators need to ensure the TVMs are more sophisticated, which requires considerable spending that may not prove worthwhile since, by definition, the more unusual fares are sold infrequently. Therefore, the real answer is that they need to simplify the system which has grown in complexity precisely over their desire to maximise revenue. But they do not really want to do that since they claim that making the system simpler might well reduce the number of good deals for passengers.
While ministers muse about selling tickets in libraries and the train companies try to force everyone to use machines, the complexity of the system is a barrier to change for which there is no easy remedy. Setting out the problem of fares complexity is the easy bit. Solving it is another matter especially as train fares are becoming something of a political hot potato. The annual rate of inflation in July is used as the determinant for the subsequent January fares rises and this will pose a dilemma for Justine Greening who last year reduced the rate to 1 per cent above inflation, which was still a 6 per cent rise. With the July figure likely to be around 3 per cent, a rise again of 6 per cent would deeply unpopular, especially given most people are not getting wage increases.
. The fares review is supposed to be revenue neutral and therefore any attempt at rationalising the system is will lead to both winners and losers. In truth, it would take a courageous and proactive government to rationalise the fares system, on the basis of an overall cut, which is impossible in the present structure of franchises as compensation would have to be paid. There is no silver bullet. The fares review is a waste of time as it is constrained by the present structure.
It would, in fact, be better for the operators to focus on the basics highlighted in the ORR report such as communicating information effectively to passengers and to do away with the punitive attitude towards passengers when they have forgotten their railcard or taken a slightly different train to the one on their ticket.