diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 30, 2023

The cost of travelling by train between London and Southend is changing.

It's quite a sudden change - announced three days ago and being introduced in three days time. It's being described as "a new and simplified fares and ticketing model" and is part of the upcoming rollout of contactless payment beyond the existing suburban boundary. That rollout has recently been delayed, kicked back from December to next spring, so c2c's move is somewhat premature. But as of Sunday 3rd December the fare changes are being implemented anyway and there will, as you might expect, be both winners and losers.

In today's post I'm going to focus on fares between Southend Central and Fenchurch Street to keep things simple but similar changes apply to other journeys. Also this kind of model is rolling out on other railways too, both this weekend and in the future, marking a significant shift to the way fares are structured in the London hinterland. Essentially things are being set up so passengers can tap and go, and this means setting peak and off-peak fares more in line with the way TfL operates.

A page on the c2c website explains what's going on but without giving specific details. A leaflet available at c2c stations additionally gives examples of fare changes, but deviously avoids showcasing any increases. National Rail have also introduced a summary page on their website, but you may feel your head explode as you work your way through it because their attempt at simplification necessarily isn't simple.

There are three main changes.

1) Single tickets will cost half of a Return ticket

(n.b. the official statement is "...cost around half of a Return ticket", but I'm trying to keep it simple)

Here's how that'll play out at peak times between Southend Central and Fenchurch Street.

Peak     Until 2 Dec   From 3 Dec
Single:    £14.60        £11.30
Return:    £22.60        £22.60

At present a single fare is more than half of a return fare - about two-thirds in this case. This is bad value for people who make single journeys (although they're the minority because most people obviously come back). From next week the single fare will be exactly half the return fare. This looks like common sense and also has the added benefit in the contactless world that the system doesn't need to remember whether you're coming or going - all legs cost the same.

At off-peak times tickets look like they're getting cheaper.

Off-Peak  Until 2 Dec   From 3 Dec
Single:     £14.60         £9.60
Return:     £21.60        £19.20

Again a single journey will cost exactly half of a return. And these are decent savings, one-third less for an off-peak single and 11% less for an off-peak return. But train companies aren't made of money so there's got to be a catch, and here it is...

2) Evening peak times will apply 16:00 to 19:00, Monday to Friday, from or via a London station.

At present there isn't an evening peak on c2c but as of next week bad luck, there is. Anyone catching a train out of Fenchurch Street between 4pm and 7pm will be affected (ditto West Ham, Barking, Upminster etc). This introduces the anomaly that the last train before 4pm and the first train after 7pm will suddenly get busier as people try to avoid the higher fare, something previously only seen on other lines. So that's a disappointing change.

It won't annoy commuters who travel in from Southend during the morning rush because they're already paying for a peak return. But it may annoy those whose journey into the capital avoids the morning peak because they now face financial restrictions on the return trip. In fact they'll still be saving money compared to this week, whenever they travel, but it may not feel like they are.

Returns     Until 2 Dec       From 3 Dec
Peak+Peak:   £22.60     £11.30+£11.30 = £22.60
Peak+OffP:   £22.60      £9.60+£11.30 = £20.90
OffP+Peak:   £21.60      £11.30+£9.60 = £20.90
OffP+OffP:   £21.60       £9.60+£9.60 = £19.20

Importantly the new evening peak only applies to journeys heading east towards Essex. Anyone heading back into London in the evening faces no such restrictions, so if you're planning a trip to the seaside you don't have to worry when to come back. This is similar to the way that TfL don't charge Oyster users peak fares in the evenings if they're travelling into zone 1, a rule now being applied more widely elsewhere.

Also importantly you don't have to use contactless, you can still buy a paper ticket. But you will have to buy the right paper ticket, so for example if you plump for an off-peak return you won't be able to leave the capital between four and seven (something which was never an issue before).

Railcard users, for example, should continue to buy paper returns rather than electronic singles. That's partly because the technology doesn't yet exist to link railcards to contactless cards, but also because many railcards set a minimum fare limit of £12. Previously all Southend to London fares exceeded £12 but now both kinds of single fall underneath so a discount won't apply.

For weekday passengers this is all sounding mostly positive so there must be another catch, and here it is.

3) There will no longer be Super Off-Peak tickets available on these routes

Super Off-Peak returns currently apply all day at weekends. They are all being scrapped, indeed this Saturday is your very last chance to buy one. And they're much cheaper, so bad luck weekend travellers because you're the ones being shafted.

Weekends  Until 2 Dec        From 3 Dec
Return:     £16.20     £9.60+£9.60 = £19.20

That is a massive 16% fare increase overnight between Saturday and Sunday, and that's on top of any inflation-related increase to be introduced next spring. In a world where leisure travel continues to thrive, this is a nice little earner for the rail companies and will help to balance out any cheaper single and return weekday fares.

There is a way round these weekend hikes and that's to book in advance.
"Following the introduction of fare and ticketing changes on 3 December, customers can continue to access great value weekend travel – offering 40% off the standard Off-Peak Return fare – by buying Online advance tickets direct from c2c three or more days before travel."
An Advance return from Southend to London will cost just £11.50 at the weekend, which is 40% lower than the usual £19.20. That is a proper bargain, and can be used on any train not just a specific booked service. But it of course relies on you knowing you intend to travel on a particular date, so an impromptu dash to the seaside will always be full price. Also you can only buy these from the c2c website, not from stations or a competitor's app.

c2c is not the only train company introducing revised fares this weekend - SWR, Chiltern and London Northwestern are also tweaking fares to a first tranche of near-London stations. Again this is premature, they're reacting to a contactless implementation date which keeps being kicked further into the future, but the fare changes are real and they're happening now.

Project Oval, as the expansion of contactless is called, is all about introducing TfL-style tap and go convenience across a much wider range of stations. For many people the ability to turn up for a train without the faff of buying a ticket in advance will be transformative. But moving to a fare model where you simply swipe and trust the system to charge the right amount is also dangerous because, as many are about to find out, you might well end up paying more.

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