The complexity of the UK's railway fare system has become more of a salient issue in the past few years with “loopholes” such as split ticketing, previously used by a minority of knowledgeable frequent travellers, becoming wider public knowledge. Every few months there will be a news story either about a person who used 94 tickets to travel from Liverpool to Southport because it saved her £613.52, or about someone who flew from Gatwick to Luton via the Moon because it was cheaper than buying a train ticket. And, whilst this provides an easy story for the media to take pot shots at the industry, it exposes the wider “problem” of the very complex fare system that exists in this country. This coverage has led to a review and recommendations published for how to simplify this fare system. However, this simplification will come at a cost.
The railway ticketing system in this country is quite confusing mainly because there are so many variations and variables to take into account. Broadly speaking, they break down into three types of variation: The time one can travel (which varies from any train to only one); the company one can (or cannot) use; and/or the route(s) that one can (or cannot) use. Of course, there are significant variations in all three of those, and tickets of the same type (for example, Off Peak) can mean different things in different places.
Along comes the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). This is a body that attempts to bring together passengers, train and freight operating companies, Network Rail and HS2. Early this year it published a report which outlines its “vision” for the new fares system in the UK. The main parts of their proposed changes which I have a problem with are as follows:
The major change is a move towards single fares from return fares. Their argument is that, a: return fares currently cost only marginally more than the single alternative (often only 5/10 pence), which is unfair; b: that passengers can therefore save money when travelling on combinations of single tickets (in that they can use a fully flexible ticket one way, but a very inflexible ticket the other). Essentially, every single ticket would be calculated from the single fare. There would be different types of single fare, ranging from fully flexible to service-specific ones which could be bought up to about 10 minutes before departure.
The Peak Time “Cliff Edge”:
Fares would be smoothed out to avoid the current situation where the first off-peak train is significantly more crowded than the previous few peak time services. For example, the 18:40 London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly service is a peak time train which is fairly empty whilst the 19:00 London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly service is off-peak and overcrowded.
Elimination of the need to use Split-Tickets:
...because the proposals would mean that customers were automatically offered the best fare.
Well hidden away is the phrase “revenue neutral”. Revenue neutral means that TOCs should bring in the same amount in fares after the proposals are implemented as they do at the moment. This will have an effect on the entire document as it means that any savings made by one group will have to be picked up by another. In this case, the document is very focused on the business traveller and the commuter. Therefore, if these groups are going to be the beneficiaries, everyone else will be paying the price.
Therefore, return fares will increase substantially. Because the system will be based off single fares, the return will cost double. Single fares will not halve because that will loose TOCs money. As the system must remain revenue neutral, single fares will probably reduce by some amount (but nowhere near 50%), leaving return fares much more expensive.
The Peak Time cliff edge is a serious red-herring for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, because it only happens at some stations to some TOCs. Virgin Trains West Coast experiences serious problems in this department with evening departures from London Euston. Just across the road at Kings Cross, London NorthEastern Railway experiences nothing of the sort, because they have managed to construct a system that doesn't leave half the population of Milton Keynes waiting to flood onto the first train after the 18:44 peak time cut off point.
Secondly, because of the revenue neutral nature of the system changes, the off-peak fares will increase. That will deter people from travelling on quite empty trains in the middle of the day (the 12 coach services from London Victoria that are rammed in the peak hours carry air around for most of the rest of the day) because there is no longer as much of a price incentive to construct one's day around the price of tickets. So, whilst there may not be so much of a different between departures at 18:43 and 18:45 at London Euston, the half past 5 train will be even more crowded than usual, whilst a 4pm departure will see fewer people.
Thirdly, there is evidence that this won't even work. Even with a difference as little as a few pounds, there is still an incentive for people to wait an additional 15-20 minutes and save the extra money (or spend it on an overpriced pasty from one of the 462 which litter every station concourse) and travel slightly later.
So, this change attempts to solve something that only exists because Virgin Trains (and some other TOCs) won't take their heads out of the sand, won't even solve the problem anyway and will make crowding differences worse for everyone else. That is a triple railway failure, an honour usually reserved for Chris Grayling.
The report also says that it will remove split-ticketing. This is extremely hard to do, certainly for some cases. The majority of journeys can involve multiple routes. The further this journey is, the more the number of different routes one can take. Calculating all the different routes and tickets that one could use on a journey from London to Edinburgh would be very difficult. And, if some combinations were cheaper than the alternative through ticket, it would be hard to do without creating more problems. If one tries to solve the problem by reducing the price of the through ticket, then that means that the subsidy needs to increase. Given the revenue neutral condition of the proposals, this could only be used on up to half of the different alternatives. Even if the proposal wasn't to be revenue neutral, that could mean that the through ticket is cheaper than another ticket which covers only part of one of the valid routes. So, because London to Edinburgh has some very direct valid routes (and some very indirect ones), the full through fare would have been calculated from the most direct route. Thus, a station on one of the indirect routes between the two may have a higher fare to/from London because there isn't the option of using the more direct route. Thus, everyone travelling to/from this mid-station would by the full London to Edinburgh ticket, but just get off part way. This is known as starting/ending short.
One could do it the other way: by increasing the price of some of the intermediate tickets. Of course that is going to make a lot of people's journeys more expensive.
This is all assuming that eliminating split-ticketing is possible, which it isn't. There are 2560 stations in the UK. That means there are well over 6.5 million different point to point tickets. Then add other tickets such as rangers/rovers, tickets to/from the boundaries of city fare zones, tickets to/from bus only destinations (such as Bristol Airport, Catterick, Melrose and numerous others). Then add in the three overall restrictions that I mentioned earlier and one has so many different combinations of tickets that it is impossible to create a system which works for all of them and eliminates every example of split-ticketing and starting/ending short.
Scotland tried to eliminate split-ticketing in 2013. In railway terms, Scotland is a reasonably uncomplicated, self-contained network meaning that such an exercise should be relatively simple. Of course, they failed. It is still cheaper to split when travelling from Edinburgh to destinations west of Glasgow at Glasgow, and when travelling from the south to destinations north of Inverness at Inverness.
The report doesn't actually suggest any solutions to split-ticketing. The best example I can find is from section 5 which says “our proposals would mean that split-ticketing would no longer be necessary, because people would automatically be offered the best combination of tickets for their journey therefore paying the lowest price for their needs.” (My emphasis.) Note the word “combination”. Being offered the best combination of tickets for a journey is literally the definition if split-ticketing. So, not only does the report suggest something that is materially impossible to implement, the only time it attempts to even slightly engage with the implementation issue it comes up with a solution that makes the problem more widespread by making it part of the official railway institutions.
Therefore, what this simplification of fares actually offers is an elimination of very cheap tickets and loopholes whilst slightly reducing the prices of the very top range of tickets. It provides failed solutions to problems which don't have to exist, or which aren't problems in the first place and creates more problems than it solves. Under the guise of simplification, the best deals and loopholes are being removed without much benefit.