Yesterday the Rail Delivery Group, in conjunction with passenger watchdog Transport Focus, launched a consultation into revising rail fares. Ticketing regulations aren't always fair to all travellers, and many passengers find them over-complex, so could a long-overdue revision make things better?
The current regulations were set in 1995, when it was assumed all journeys would begin with a paper ticket bought at a station, so fail to take into account modern digital options. The working week was also much more regular back then, so part-time travellers were overlooked when it came to season tickets, and peak and off-peak were more sharply defined. Britain could do better.
KPMG carried out a preliminary study as background research, which you can download here, although there's really no need. All the important issues are in the public consultation, which ends in October, and the RDG propose to publish a summary report before the end of the year. The intention is that whatever changes might ultimately be adopted, average rail fares would remain the same. That means there'd be winners as well as losers, so this isn't going to be universally popular, if indeed anything happens at all.
The consultation can be completed online, or there's a pdf version you can print out and send to a Freepost address. It's in three parts - Fare Structures, Buying A Ticket and Any Other Thoughts. Various high-level strategies are suggested for consideration, some of which may be taken forward, with the caveat that these are "broad concepts which would require further consideration and refinement."
So I thought I'd cut and paste the high-level strategies from Part 1 below, along with a brief mention of what I think, and add a separate comments box for each. I know some of you love to discuss railways a lot, so here's your chance. But remember it's not all about what would be good for you, it's about a fairer system across the full range of rail travellers. And if you have lots and lots you feel you need to say, remember that responding to the actual consultation would be far more productive than speculating here.
We know that rail fares can sometimes be confusing to customers and we are interested in your views about how rail fares should be structured in the future. To what extent do you think each of the following options should be considered in re-structuring rail fares?
Fares based on distance travelled (e.g. there is a cost per mile travelled). This may mean that some fares become higher than now and some become lower than now.
Charging by distance might sound eminently sensible, but would disproportionately affect passengers in certain parts of the country. For example an open single from Penzance to Plymouth currently costs £17.60 to travel 64 miles, whereas it's £50.60 to cover exactly the same distance from Ipswich to London. Equalising this out would greatly help those on short commutes, but do serious damage to peripheral rail travel. Do we really want to make long distance rail journeys, say from Edinburgh to Bristol, prohibitively more expensive compared to a short local hop?
Fares based on the level of service received (e.g. fares for routes with a lower quality service - such as slower, less regular and more basic trains - are lower than fares for routes with a higher quality service). This may mean that some fares become higher than now and some fares become lower than now.
In some places setting fares by quality of journey already happens, for example High Speed services from Kent cost more than other routes, but how might this apply in areas where there's no existing competition? And while it'd be nice to offer some financial compensation in return for a sub-optimal service, can you imagine the fuss if fares went up every time better or more frequent trains were introduced?
Fares where the cost is the same at all times of day and for all days of the week (e.g. fares are the same at busy (peak) and less busy (off-peak) times). This may mean that fares at off-peak times become higher than now and fares at peak times become lower than now. As a result trains during peak times may be busier than now.
If your aim is to simplify the price of train tickets, a flat fare regardless of date or time would do it. But it'd also encourage even more people to crowd onto rush hour trains, because there'd no longer be any financial disincentive, and it'd make off-peak travel increasingly unaffordable. Of all the options in the consultation, I reckon this is the least workable.
Fares based on time of booking (e.g. fares booked in advance of the day of travel are lower than fares available on the day of travel). This may mean that fares for customers booking on the day of travel become slightly higher than now.
Buying a ticket in advance is always a risk, in case someone's health intervenes or the weather's foul, and it's not always possible to get compensation, nor cheap to swap the date of travel. I'd hate for 'always more expensive on the day' to become the default.
Fares based on the amount of flexibility required (e.g. fares for booking travel on a specific train service are lower). This may mean that customers wanting complete flexibility over when they travel pay slightly more than now.
Flexible pricing already happens on many routes, but I take issue with extending it more widely where congestion isn't actually an issue. Tying yourself to one particular service isn't always possible, especially when booking in advance, and the differential in fares charged can be enormous. If passengers were always encouraged to book a designated train, and for whatever reason missed it, the only winners would be the train company's shareholders.
Fares designed so that it is unnecessary to buy a ‘split-ticket’ in order to get the cheapest deal. At present, there are occasions when it is cheaper, when making a journey from A to C, to buy two or more separate tickets e.g. two tickets (A-B and B-C) may be cheaper than one ticket (A-C).
Unless you're the kind of traveller who saves a fortune by exploiting wrinkles in the system, ending the need for split-ticketing can only be a good idea. But good luck trying to come up with a ticketing structure that can solve the split-ticketing issue, without the end result being so blunt that it introduces all sorts of other injustices instead.
Fares based on encouraging travel to fill up empty seats (e.g. more last minute deals to fill available seats). Even if this means different passengers paying different fares for the same journey.
This seems quite specific, as the majority of UK railway journeys don't have reservable seats. It's an intriguing idea though, as fares normally rise as the day of departure approaches, so it might be excellent if train companies held a last minute fire sale to get bums on seats.
Fares based on loyalty to regular travellers (e.g. regular travellers can earn discounts for future purchases). Even if that means higher fares for individual journeys using single and return tickets.
Everyone loves a loyalty bonus scheme... except hang on, when the balancing action is to raise fares for occasional travellers, that's hardly going to attract people to choose the railway over a car or a flight.
Fares which provide savings for certain groups in society (e.g. lower fares for certain groups in society such as young people, older people, people with disabilities). Even if this means slightly higher fares for other passengers.
Railcards already exist to offer these kinds of savings. Again, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that everyone else's fares should rise to somehow balance out concessions for deserving groups.
Fares where both the outward and return journey fares are based on time of day travelled (e.g. return tickets replaced with easily combined one-way tickets, purchased together, enabling both outward and return journey fares to reflect time of travel, e.g. peak ticket for outward journey, off-peak ticket for return part of the journey).
This suggestion's genuinely dangerous - scrapping return tickets so that passengers can be charged 'the appropriate fare' for their time of travel. There'd be winners, but in a world where return fares currently often cost just a few pence more than a single, I suspect I'd be a loser every time.
Reforming rail fares will involve balancing the needs of different customers and it is unlikely that a single approach will suit everyone. Which of the three options described below best reflects your preference for the range of rail fares available?
Option A: No discounted tickets, standard ticket price lower than now Option B: Discounted fares same as now, standard ticket price same as now Option C: Greater discounts than now, standard ticket price higher than now
As previously discussed, Option A is a non-starter ("Trains are likely to be busier than now in the peak period."). Option C is about pricing tickets according to demand, so would make rush hour travel even more expensive. We'll obviously end up with Option B, the status quo, but perhaps with a slight nudge towards A or C.
If you started again and rewrote the UK rail fares system from scratch, many of the existing anomalies and annoyances could be removed. Passengers might also have faith they'd bought the best value fare for their journey, rather than picking their way through a minefield of options and unintentionally paying over the odds. But in a consultation which can only keep average fares the same, what's the betting that the potential losers ultimately drown out the potential winners?