Seven steps to simpler rail fares. Sorted.

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Tomorrow is the last day to give feedback for the Rail Delivery Group’s review of rail fares with the aim of making them much easier to understand. They’ve produced a simple clickable online survey which, if you don’t make any additional comments or suggestions, only takes around five minutes to complete, so is well worth a whirl.

There are questions on things like the merits of basing fares on distance, time of day/day of week, level of service, time of booking, method of booking, flexibility of travel, split ticketing, rewarding loyalty, discounts for railcards as well as methods of payment.

The RDG review pledges any changes will be financially neutral so for every attractive outcome offering lower ticket prices there’ll be others paying more for their journey. I can’t see the latter going down well with the rail industry’s political masters nor the commentators and media who like to find fault. Which group of passengers will willingly pay more for the sake of achieving a more logical, easier to understand fares system?

And in that context here are my seven suggestions for simplification:

1. Do away with cheaper return tickets and just have single journey tickets.

In some cases cheap off peak returns are only 10p more than the single which is particularly anomalous. Instead maintain the ability to buy a return (for convenience) but it’ll simply cost double the single. In averaging this all out, most people already make return journeys so this won’t have a huge impact on what people pay; it will mean cheaper single journey prices and modestly more expensive return prices but still achieving the same overall revenue take. While we’re at it, the summation of single leg journey prices mustn’t be less than the price charged from end to end to avoid split ticket anomalies.

2. Do away with Advanced Purchase discounted tickets.

In many cases, for Standard Class travel, they don’t offer the savings they first appear to once the cost of a return journey is taken into account. An off peak return is very often just as cheap as two Adanced Purchase tickets for the separate journey legs. Furthmore, off peak returns offer complete flexibility on journey travel times.

3. Do away with peak/off peak price differentials; charge the same ticket price irrespective of travel time.

Bit radical, I know, but season ticket holders travelling five days a week already pay something close to five times the off peak fare anyway. They always reckon they’re hard done by, but actually the perceived high cost of travel is because they pay in bulk and make more journeys. An occasional traveller pays much more per journey as they pay full whack in the morning peak with an Anytime Ticket. This change will obviously mean off peak ticket prices rising relative to peak prices but see my suggestion number 7.

4. Do away with cheaper tickets restricted to one particular train company.

All tickets should be available on any train running between the origin and destination and used by ‘any permitted’ route between those points. Which brings me to…

5. Make it much more clear what the ‘Any Permitted’ route options are for tickets.

I’m pretty sure only the renowned ticketing expert Barry Doe knows what can be done and what can’t; the rules are so complex and almost impregnable. It can’t be beyond the wit of the fares experts at the RDG to produce a nice interactive online map of the rail network where you can click on your origin and destination stations and up comes all the route options possible on the map. I think people would be amazed what flexibility is available and when combined with the ability to break your journey at any station on route (something many passengers are also unaware is possible) opens up many flexible travel options.

6. Do away with seat reservations.

Increasingly I see passengers ignoring their allocated seat and instead opting for a preferred better placed unreserved seat especially when unreserved (or less busy) coaches are marked up on platform indicator boards. Passengers like the ability to choose a preferred seat once they actually arrive on the train, but this leads to chaotic scenes where reserved seats are foregone as passengers rush to bag unreserved seats. I’m also increasingly finding electronic seat reservations systems are unreliable leading to more confusion as passengers board along the route expecting to find their reserved seat.

7. My final suggestion, having swept away cheaper returns, cheaper advanced purchases, cheaper peak tickets and reservations in favour of a simple easy-to-understand one price system…….is to add a bit of complexity back, but using a promotional marketing approach by significantly expanding the range of Railcards.

7a Make Railcards available for any adult without the need to be of a certain age, have a partner or children, or work for the armed forces. Yes, let anyone buy a Railcard. A sort of Nationwide Network Card. The range will include paying something like £100 up front for a year which would offer say, a 50% discount off peak on the new standard single fare. Or another could be £40 offering a third discount. I’m not privy to know the revenue streams from different tickets now, so it’s difficult to know what the price band/discounts need to be, but I hope you get the idea behind the principle of establishing say three or four Railcards of this kind to appeal to different market segments. You’d design Railcards to appeal to regular users as well as occasional users and the discount would encourage travel by offering a good value price. Offers could also be made on the upfront price of the initial Railcard purchase to encourage take-up and discounts given for longer duration Railcards, as now, say for a three year validity.

7b Existing Railcards would continue and with some extensions of validity. For example Senior Railcard discounts should be available at any time, including during the morning peak in the London and South East area (ok, I need to declare a slight vested interest here; ok, a big-time vested interest here – I live in London and the South East and I use a Senior Railcard; a lot). Journeys wholly within London and the South East (as per the Network Railcard area – which itself is nonsensical to have one Railcard’s restrictions based on another’s area) are not discounted until after 9am presumably on the logic of not giving a discount at a busy time of day with packed out trains. But that doesn’t stand much scrutiny as Londoners with a Freedom Ticket (available to over 60s) giving completely free travel can use the overcrowded Underground at any time as can Senior Railcard holders travel at a discount on packed out morning peak trains in other conurbations around the country and finally as justification, Senior Railcard holders can already travel across the L&SE area border at morning peak times – e.g. there’s no time restriction on discounts for a pre 9am journey from Brighton to Ipswich (Ipswich is outside the L&SE area) but discounted travel is not possible pre 9am for Brighton to Colchester (Colchester is within the L&SE area). Again this is something many passengers don’t know about, indeed my recent experience has been even some ticket office staff don’t know about it either and wrongly assume a Senior Railcard means no discounts before 9am. Not true.

So that’s it, a much simplified ticket system with some attractive incentives through a new range of Railcards. Sorted.

If you’ve got ideas or comments about rail fares be sure to click here by close of play tomorrow.

Roger French           9th September 2018

One thought on “Seven steps to simpler rail fares. Sorted.

  1. No – definitely don’t get rid of reserved seats. I travel with my wife and 2 children and try and book a table of 4 as much as possible. This suggestion would lead to families being split up and would lead a stream of “Ryanair” negative publicity.

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