One of the UK's ticket offices, in Bridlington

Simpler UK fares plans get a mixed reaction

Bridlington Railway Station ticket office in Yorkshire, UK kitmasterbloke on WikiCommons

The government-managed London and North Eastern Railway has announced plans to radically overhaul its fare structure. The train operating company proposes to simplify the myriad of different fares available, leaving just three options. They say it will give passengers much more surety about the fares they pay. Consumer groups are concerned that bargain basement fares are being abolished.

LNER, the operator responsible for the bulk of passenger traffic on the prestige East Coast Main Line is changing its fare structure. The move will be a pilot for a nationwide sweeping away of the bewildering range of tickets and prices for journeys on the British railway network. The government-run service, which connects London with the North East of England and the East of Scotland, says simplifying fares is vital in making rail travel more attractive.

Ticket machines more confused than passengers

The decision has garnered praise for its potential benefits. However, it has also raised concerns about possible drawbacks. The move comes just ahead of an annual fare increase, and at the same time, a consumer group has investigated the anomalies in pricing, especially when using station ticket machines.

Last year the UK government approved an initiative to close ticket offices, often regarded as the only place for many travellers to get reliable fare advice. The closure plan was defeated by a huge groundswell of public opinion. Now, the consumer rights watchdog “Which?” has found that the alternative offer – ticket machines – is almost universally bad value.

Fares please anxiety

Which? Found that the installed ranks of ticket machines at stations up and down the UK are not offering the best deals. Station ticket machines can charge more than double the price of booking online, according to that consumer rights organisation. Same-day rail tickets are 52 per cent more expensive on average if purchased from a machine, says the organisation.

Azuma high speed trains sit on either side of an island platform under a cloudy sky
One fare fits all. Well, three fares fit all. LNER express trains on East Coast Main Line, source: LNER

LNER say that their customers are confused by the range of tickets currently on offer. That is hard to argue against. Most travellers are bewildered by the vast range of prices, regulations and restrictions. Times of travel, selected routes, individual operators, and a multitude of classes, all contribute to the anxiety when the ticket inspector (or train manager, customer representative, revenue officer, or other operator-specific title for the good old-fashioned conductor) calls “all tickets please.”

Online purchases are cheaper most of the time

To put all that right, LNER says they want to radically simplify the fare structure. From February they intend to offer just three types of ticket, varying by the level of flexibility. The company has been in the position of leading the way before. LNER was at the forefront of abolishing return fares, which did make some journeys cheaper.

At Glasgow Queen Street station, five ScotRail staff display a huge promotional off-peak all-day ticket. From the right, they are: Scott Smith, ScotRail Customer Service Assistant; Ian Gray, ScotRail Welcome Host; Fiona Hyslop MSP, Minister for Transport; Alex Hynes, Scotland's Railway Managing Director; and Nicola Murray, ScotRail Customer Service Assistant - who is the only one not smiling.
Dynamic pricing varies across the UK, adding to complexity. At Glasgow Queen Street station, it’s a little less perplexing, at least until the end of March. Image from ScotRail.

Anomalous ticket prices have long been a standing joke of the British railway system. Which? found that fares purchased online were cheaper around three-quarters of the time. On average, same-day journeys were found to cost a hefty 52 per cent more from machines. Researchers purchasing same-day, one-way tickets found a journey from near Manchester to London could cost 154 per cent more from a station ticket machine compared with buying online.

Better bet on the right ticket or shorter odds on the wrong one

One critic of the new, simplified system warned that it took away the “walk-up travel” option for the traveller. Reports in the Guardian newspaper pointed out that while “turn up and go” fares were available, they were unaffordable. In other words, passengers would be put in a straight jacket by the new fare structure, which they say would be good news, but only for the railway operators. The extrapolation of that scenario may well be that even fewer passengers venture into the ticket offices. That could refuel the fire for their removal.

In a damning indictment, the consumer watchdog encouraged travellers to book online in the first instance. “The price differences we found between booking online and using station ticket machines were simply astounding”, said Rory Boland, from Which? “Millions of tickets are purchased using ticket machines every year. Huge numbers of us are potentially paying significantly more than we need to.” At least in future, our choice of the wrong ticket may well be reduced to shorter odds.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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