Posted 8th June 2012 | 6 Comments

Baker critical of rail fares 'lottery'

A TRANSPORT MINISTER has criticised the 'lottery' of rail fare tariffs, even though ATOC has said it has tried to make the structure more straightforward.

A new survey has revealed that many passengers are puzzled about the rules for peak hour travel and the conditions of issue which govern the use of Advance tickets.

The report has been published by the Office of Rail Regulation, which is calling on train operators to provide better ticket information.

More than 1,600 passengers were questioned, and their responses revealed a 'varied understanding' of ticket restrictions and validities, including the meaning of such titles as ‘peak’, ‘off-peak’ and ‘Advance’. In particular, nearly three-quarters of all those interviewed were not confident about ‘off-peak’ times, which do vary from route to route.

More than of half of those who responded on line agreed that ‘it is a bit of a lottery as to whether you find the best price for a rail journey or not’. 45 per cent said that the fare system is too complicated for them to understand.

Two out of five online respondents said they had previously purchased tickets and later found they could have made the journey more cheaply, while 

70 per cent of on-train interviewees did not realise that their deeply-discounted ‘Advance’ tickets were valid only on one specified service.

Anna Walker, who chairs the ORR, said: "Passengers are often confused and frustrated by the lack of information about rail tickets, particularly where and when to get the best value fares and what the best ticket options are. Our research speaks for itself. Nearly 50 per cent of passengers surveyed online said that the fares system is too complicated to understand. If passengers do not have the information they need, they can end up paying more than is necessary or find themselves being penalised for having the wrong ticket. Lack of clarity or certainty that they are getting the right ticket can also undermine passengers’ confidence and trust in the railways.

“We have been working hard with the Association of Train Operating Companies on initiatives which respond to customer demand and I am pleased with the progress being made, and the work that ATOC has undertaken, to make improvements for passengers. Providing clearer information for passengers buying tickets online and at ticket vending machines is a positive step forward, as is improving information on tickets.

“I urge train companies to continue with these improvements to win the confidence of passengers. There is much more work to be done."

Transport minister Norman Baker agreed. After the seeing the results of the survey, he commented: "I firmly believe that buying a rail ticket should be a straightforward transaction, not an obstacle course. Passengers should be able to confidently choose without having to understand every nuance of the fares and retail structure.

“When people do decide to travel by rail, they want a train ticket, not a lottery ticket.”

ATOC responded to the report, which is the second making the same points within a few weeks, by saying that it had tried to make tariffs simpler. ATOC chief executive Michael Roberts said: "By providing a broad range of fares, operators have attracted record numbers of passengers to the railways. Despite tough financial times, more and more people are choosing to go by train because they are able to find a good value ticket for their journey.

“A lot has been done to make things as straightforward as possible for passengers and we are committed to doing better. Train companies have been involved for some time now in a series of projects to improve the information they provide to passengers.”

Watchdog Passenger Focus published its own report about the complexities of rail tickets on 22 May, when it warned that 'passengers who make an innocent mistake can find themselves facing a hefty bill, or in some of the worst cases, a criminal prosecution.

'Passenger Focus has been contacted by hundreds of passengers who have faced very unfair treatment as a result of an inconsistent application of complex rules.'

Following the new ORR findings, Passenger Focus director David Sidebottom said:  “Passengers will welcome these findings as they corroborate much of the research carried out by Passenger Focus. This will add extra momentum to the rail industry’s existing efforts, spurred on by Passenger Focus’s work, to reform fares and ticketing. Passengers will be pleased to see the rail industry’s attempts to dispel the haze of uncertainty that surrounds some rail ticket purchases. With seven out of 10 passengers surveyed unaware they can only travel on one train only with an Advance ticket, and with only a quarter of passengers confident of when off peak starts and ends, there is much work to be done. Ultimately passengers will be the judge of how effective these proposed measures are.”

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Mark, London

    Cheaper tickets encourage the use of less popular trains at off-peak time, surely that much is obvious? If you charge a flat fare across the board then peak-time trains will become even busier and off-peak services will be empty.

    I do find it astonishing that people struggle so greatly with train tickets yet manage perfectly well with buying airfares, for example.

  • David Spencer, Bolton, Lancashire

    It is Government policy to encourage people to use trains instead of cars. The price of petrol in our car tanks doesnt change once filled up and it is possible to calculate the cost per mile of any journey. The railways have so many ticket prices that it is impossible to make any comparisons. TOCs should charge one price only and the same price during peak and off peak times and set that price just below the cost of a car. Dont the TOCs realise that the present ticket lottery is costing THEM the TOCs a fortune in human time. Dear TOCs just listen to your customers for once instead of being commercial dictators.

  • Lee, Manchester

    I realise I may be being naive but why do TOC's need so many different tickets in the first place? Why is it more expensive to buy a ticket on the day of travel than to book the same ticket to travel on the same train a month inadvance? Surely it dosen't become more expensive to transport somone the closer it gets to the train departure time? WHy can't there simply be a fixed fare for each journey? Do the more expensive ticket prices off-set the cheaper ticket prices and if so, what is the point. I f the actual price charged was the average between the most expensive and cheapest fares for any journey, surely this would achieve the same revenue generation as well as making the fares structure a lot simpler and more tickets more affordable.

  • George Davidson, Newport

    Surely, the main aim of the train companies must be to keep the high demand commuter trains free of leisure travellers on Mondays to Fridays? Why don't we have a simple "colour code" system for each service with a yellow background on the timetable for trains being charged peak rates and a plain background for off peak. Should a passenger start on a long distance train service that is yellow for the first hour and then "plain" for the rest of the journey, they could expect to pay a "shoulder" fare. This could be ammended for certain dates where special events were taking place.

    Having done the above, I would also abolish the book ahead system for specific trains in order to obtain cheap tickets. This certainly dissuades me from travelling by rail as I will not risk an advanced book leisure journey for fear of bad weather or being ill. Hence, I travel usually by car, whenever I wish without all the hassle and restrictions that the rail industry imposes.

    I also note that fares tend to be higher for distance travelled where the number of seats available is limited. This seems to be a particular problem with Cross Country as their trains do not seem to be long enough to cope with demand. Let us suppose that Virgin acquired new electric trains for the Birmingham > Scotland routes. This would free up their Voyagers which could be added to the CC fleet. Surely, with this additional capacity, lower fares could be charged which in turn would lead to an increase in passengers as people would switch from road transport.

  • Jim Campbell, Solihull

    You can bet any move to "simplify" the fares structure will result in increases with the loss of the cheapest options that are now available.
    For instance Virgin allow Railcard holders to travel in the peaks at off-peak fares.It used to apply to the cross-country services when Virgin operated those but Arriva took the first opportunity to remove the concession, when the names of tickets were changed from Savers to off-peak.
    Why is it that it is accepted that air fares change dependent on when you book them but for some reason with trains the companies get criticised.

  • Harjinder Singh, Sint-Truiden, Limburg, Belgium

    I have used the rail network quite intensely, especially Great Western, Virgin and East Coast services. I was always able to book on line for fixed date and fixed time tickets. If you book on line and do not need flexibility the present system is very good. It became even better 5 years ago when I turned 60 !

    Harjinder Singh