Rail 591: Ticket simplication is a myth

The simplification of the names for different types of tickets is a tiny step forward in bringing rationality into the fares system, but immediately begs the question of whether a serious attempt is to be made to address the major shortcomings in the structure.

Let’s deal with the good news first. Certainly, getting rid of the ridiculous plethora of names such as ‘first leisure advance’ and ‘apex’ and the like, is to be welcomed. The crazy situation where people get offered different fares for buying the same advance ticket on websites will also go. It was apparently a legal requirement but the operators, particularly First Great Western, could have shown a bit of nous by simply ignoring it, given that no one would want to buy a £40 ticket if a £20 were available for the same journey. There is other good news with people no longer being offered half saver returns, as all advance tickets will now be expressed as single legs. Interestingly, the abolition of the ‘saver’ elicited little fuss or protest. That’s fine if, as the Association of Train Operating Companies maintains, that the principle of the saver will remain – in other words that there will continue to be a cheap off peak ticket permanently on offer. This is a bit of a risk as the saver has been around for a long time, but the decision to use just simple terms – advance, off-peak, anytime – for the new ticket categories is an excellent one.

ATOC called this the biggest shake up of fares for many years but, in fact, it is nothing of the sort. As David Mapp, ATOC’s commercial director explained in answer to a question about punitive penalties for people missing trains and the timing of ‘off-peak’ at the conference launching the change: ’This is about renaming and rebranding, not about changing travel restrictions or price levels. We have considered common time restrictions but the trouble is that the pattern of demand and the type of train service varies on different routes.”

Therefore the fundamental problems about the fares structure remain unaltered. They fall into three broad categories: complexity, expense and inflexibility. The complexity arises from the fact that fares have evolved piecemeal from a system that is partly regulated and partly a free-for-all. Controls are imposed on saves and season tickets, which can only rise by the retail price index plus 1 per cent annually. Other tickets, though, are totally unregulated and the operators have responded by working towards the Ryanair-type model with a system that is dependent on predicted loadings and early booking.

The trouble with the system is that the basic fare – which in future will be called ‘anytime’ and which is not regulated – has been allowed to increase to levels that are a major deterrence not just to travelling at peak time but to taking the train altogether. These headline fares, such as £230 return from London to Manchester, more than £1 per return mile, seem to have risen with little thought to the effect they are having on the overall market. Sure, some businesses pay them as do people travelling in an emergency, but operators have to ask themselves whether this really is a sensible pricing policy. While they may be happy to milk their customers after 15 years of economic boom, will they quickly slash these fares should there be a recession?

The two system go very badly together, creating enormous variation in fare levels with completely disproportionate penalties for people unable to specify precisely what train they want to take, or who have to take a trip at short notice. And this is where the third problem, inflexibility, comes in. It seems ludicrous, too, that a customer who has bought an advance ticket – even though I am writing this at 4pm on a Monday morning, I could apparently get a single to Manchester tomorrow morning for £91.50 rather than £115 if I specify the precise train – should lose all that money if they miss the train or take an earlier one.

The problem is that the rail industry is increasingly acting like aviation. This was expressly stated by ATOC, in response to complaints that people changing ticket will be charged £10, an increase for many passengers because many operators used to charge £5. ATOC says that this is a common practice in the airline industry but trains are not planes. Despite privatisation and fragmentation, the railways remain a basic public service in which access should be as unconstrained and cheap as possible. This is understood in Europe, which explains the more rational and lower fares structures, but not in the UK where, historically, railways have always been seen as a business which needs to pay its way.

Railways absorb £5bn worth of taxpayers’ money annually and therefore they cannot act on a purely commercial basis. Their fares policies are effectively excluding large swathes of the population who do not have access to information about advanced fares or cannot predict when they are going to make a journey. It is all too arbitrary and inflexible.

Charging someone an extra £115 to Manchester if they happen to get on the wrong train or are delayed by an incident on the Tube and have paid, say, £91 50 already for a ticket, is not the response of a commercial organisation which is trying to foster a customer-focussed reputation as ATOC would have it. Rather, it is the policy of a monopoly provider which knows that their customers have no alternative, the sort of thing that gave British Rail a bad name. Surely a sensible compromise would be for someone with such a ticket to be given credit for the amount they have already paid if they ‘fess up’ to the ticket inspector and say can you please alter this for the train on which they are travelling.

The good news is that Ruth Kelly has taken a genuine interest in the subject. It’s the sort of thing she is good at. Although she is extremely bright and capable, she has demonstrated absolutely no vision for her role as transport secretary but senior rail industry sources all say that she is great at the detail of issues like the fares system. Making sense of it, however, will involve cajoling the train operators to adopt flexible policies and they have shown themselves to be remarkably conservative on these issues in the past and unwilling to consider any radical changes.

Here again the structure of the industry mitigates against sensible change. In a little publicised move, Transport for London recently nationalised the Croydon Tramlink because changes in its fares policy imposed on the tram operators meant that TfL was paying them £4m per year in compensation. Ms Kelly is hardly going to do the same to the train operators but developing a coherent and sensible fares policy would require a similar bold approach, either through renegotiating the franchise agreements or simply taking them over. Otherwise it seems we are stuck with a fares ‘policy’ that seems to have no rationale whatsoever, whether it is purely commercial or servicing the public interest and the three problems of complexity, expense and inflexibility will remain.

Google maps

The absence of train stations on Google maps about which I wrote a few weeks ago (Rail 587) has more ramifications than I first realised. It is not only the fact that the Google maps do not show stations, but they also ignore the possibility of rail travel. Try using the direction finder on Google maps to go, say, between Leicester and Loughborough, one stop on the train. The map defaults to car usage of course, but then click on the ‘use public transit’ (it’s American remember) and you get…..directions for buses. The bus information is in fact excellent – it will tell you when the next bus is leaving and explain how to walk to the right stop, giving estimated timings. There are links to the local bus operators but a complete absence of any information about train travel. It is as if the railways did not exist.

Following my previous item on this, Chris Scoggins the head of National Rail Enquiry Service emailed to inform me that people can get detailed information on Google maps provided they put in a station name in the search engine. He was missing the point. The maps do not show stations unless specifically requested and therefore people might be totally unaware that there was one right next to their proposed destination.

From other responses I have had, it is clear that it is up to the railway organisations – ATOC and Network Rail – to ensure that the information is included on Google maps. Other maps apparently have better information but, of course, Google, as the best search engine, is the most used and therefore the railways are losing out on lots of potential customers. Mr Scoggins assures me that he is in touch with Google maps over this issue and will come back with progress reports. I await them eagerly.

There is also much to report on the St Pancras situation where the plot thickens but that will have to wait till next week, as will my response to the letter from Atkins defending its high speed rail study. Some weeks there just is not enough space….

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