Will rail fare and ticketing pilots finally give passengers a break?

On 1 February the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), a rail industry body which brings together all British passenger and freight operators, along with Network Rail and HS2, announced a series of rail fare pilots and other improvements. The RDG suggests that these have the potential to “guarantee customers simpler fares and the best possible deal every time they travel”.

09 February 2017

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

On 1 February the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), a rail industry body which brings together all British passenger and freight operators, along with Network Rail and HS2, announced a series of rail fare pilots and other improvements. The RDG suggests that these have the potential to “guarantee customers simpler fares and the best possible deal every time they travel”.

This follows the joint publication of an action plan for information on

Image from Flickr Elliot Brown. Licensed under Creative Commons

rail fares and ticketing in December 2016    by the Department for Transport, RDG, Which? and Transport Focus (the independent transport user watchdog).


Fares and ticketing issues are a longstanding headache for rail passengers across Britain. Although the pilots themselves may not affect Wales directly, if successful these pilots are likely to lead to future changes across the network as rail franchises are renewed. Improvements to ticket machines and websites are also expected during 2017 which may bring more immediate benefits.

So what’s the problem?

The Secretary of State for Transport has a statutory duty under the Railways Act 1993 to make sure rail fares are reasonable, to protect through ticketing and promote the use of services provided by more than one operator.  This is achieved through “fares regulation” via franchise agreements, and “ticketing regulation” through industrywide agreements enforced by the industry regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), as a condition of operating licences.

You can find more detail on these arrangements in annex A of the DfT’s 2012 Rail Fares and Ticketing Review: Initial consultation (PDF 695 KB).

The RDG explains how the planned trials will address the effects of these regulations:

The trials will be designed to establish the changes needed to regulation and processes so that train companies can offer customers simpler, easy to use fares. Decades-old government rules covering rail fares, originally intended to protect customers but introduced before the internet and online booking, have prevented train companies from being more flexible in offering tickets that customers want.

The complexity of rail fares and tickets has been causing problems for years. In June 2012 the ORR published fares and ticketing – information and complexity (PDF 1.31 MB). Its findings included the fact that more than half of passengers surveyed believed getting the best value ticket was “a bit of a lottery”, 45% thought the system too difficult to understand, while 41% reported buying tickets only to find later that they could have made the same journey at lower cost.  Nearly three-quarters of all those interviewed were not confident on what ‘off-peak’ times were.

Similarly, qualitative research on ticket vending machine (TVM) usability (PDF 1.47 MB), published by Transport Focus in 2010, found that while the large majority (72%) of passengers “were satisfied with ticket-buying facilities at stations”, passengers continued to experience problems.  These included poor screen layout, confusing and complex screen sequencing, and confusion over ticket validity and restrictions so that passengers are unclear about which options offered them best value ticket.

In October 2016 the House of Commons Transport Select Committee published the future of rail: improving the rail passenger experience, the latest in a series of reports considering fares and ticketing dating back a decade. The report described passengers’ frustrations:

Particular bugbears include use of ambiguous terms such as “London Terminals” and “Any Permitted” in relation to destinations and routes; “split-ticketing”, by which cross-country journeys can often be made more cheaply by purchasing a series of tickets between intermediate stations on the journey; and ticket vending machines that do not always offer the full range of ticketing information or the cheapest available fares.

Successive UK Governments have promised to simplify rail fares. Labour’s July 2007 White Paper delivering a sustainable railway (PDF 2.68 MB) promised to “make it easier for passengers to decide which fare is the right one for the journey, to get a sense of price, and to work out whether or not there is a cheaper option available”.  The last UK Government undertook a fares and ticketing review which published its “next steps” (PDF 0.97 MB) in October 2013.

So what’s happening now?

Three pilots addressing a range of issues have been announced:

  • Split ticketing: the RDG says that “best-priced through fares” will be tested with CrossCountry Trains “who are currently obliged by regulations to price through tickets for very long connecting journeys even where customers can beat that price by combining different types of ticket”. Details of the specific routes included in the trial are being finalised and will be published soon;
  • Single-leg pricing: will be tested on London-Glasgow and London-Edinburgh routes. At present many single fares on these routes cost much more than 50% of a return ticket price. The RDG says the pilot will test single leg pricing “so that customers would always know the cheapest fare for their chosen journey, out and back”; and
  • Routing changes: the London-Sheffield route will be “overhauled to reflect what is actually on offer”, where currently fares which are obviously unsuitable must still be offered creating confusion and offering poor value. The RDG says:

Regulations [on this route] date back to when the direct service was much less frequent and journeys often needed a change of train via a longer route. This means that tickets are required to be available which are not in step with actual options available now.

Trade magazine Passenger Transport recently provided an example of the issues to be addressed by the London-Sheffield pilot in an article on the trials. It pointed out that while Sheffield currently has a direct service from St Pancras station, a service from Kings Cross, changing at Doncaster, can offer an alternative. Yet despite taking longer and requiring a change, fares regulation means the King Cross route is more expensive.

In addition to the three trials, the RDG highlights measures set out in the joint action plan to make TVMs and ticket websites more user friendly by giving “customers better information and [making] it simpler to find the right ticket at the right price”. The action plan explains that changes will include clear ticket names and definitions, an on-line look-up tool to explain restrictions, and options for finding the cheapest fare.

And what happens next?

The three trials will start in May 2017, with a range of improvements to TVMs and websites beginning in spring 2017 and rolled out during the year. A working group will review progress against these actions monthly, with an interim report published in the ORRs July 2017 Annual Consumer Report and a final report in December 2017.

No doubt rail passengers will be hoping for big improvements following the pilots.  After so much discussion over so many years, passengers and the industry alike will be hoping the action plan will make for a happy new year for travellers in 2018.

Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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