Are fares unfair?

Rail fares are rising again
Published on Monday, 03 December 2012 15:41
Written by Anthony Smith

Many passengers soon to renew their rail season tickets are again facing price rises that will, in some places, feel steep

Last week the 2013 season ticket prices were published on the National Rail Enquiries website, with individual ticket prices following soon. Passengers will feel the pain of fresh increases, following years of above-inflation rises

This is in spite of the welcome decision by the Government to limit regulated fares in England to an overall limit of the inflation figure plus one per cent, rather than the three per cent that was previously proposed.

It also appears that train companies are exercising some restraint by not using the full flexibility they are allowed to adjust season ticket fares on individual routes.

Passengers waiting on the platform tell us they want two things: a decent, reliable service, and to feel like they are getting value for money. Last year Britain's rail passengers spent over £7 billion to make more than 1.4 billion journeys and fares rose on average by 5.9 per cent.

We know that, at present, just 42 per cent of passengers overall are satisfied with value for money, a figure that drops to 29 per cent for commuters. While this figure is partly influenced by the perception of a service's punctuality and frequency, a great deal is based simply on the cost of the ticket.

In 2009 we conducted an in-depth comparison of rail fares in Great Britain and continental Europe[1].  We looked at fares, service frequency and speed on journeys in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Although travelling by train in Britain, especially for commuting, was more expensive than it was elsewhere in Europe, service frequency was higher.

Long-distance travel was more of a mixed bag: if you were able to book in advance and accept zero flexibility you could get a very good deal, but if you needed some flexibility you would pay considerably more.

There is talk of using more 'demand management' on journeys in the peak periods. While it makes sense to provide an incentive for commuters to travel outside the peak, peak fares are already high and not everyone has the potential to shift their travel patterns.

Indeed, those least able to avoid the high peak are likely to be the least able to afford a premium for travelling at these times.

The huge gap between the Advance 'one train only - no refunds' price and the price of a flexible ticket also frustrates passengers

Additionally, many passengers continue to feel that the fares structure is too complicated, confusing and illogical. The chief complaint is often one of the 'obstacle course' of restrictions attached to tickets. For example, what time you can travel, which train company you can use and what route you can take.

The rail industry must think differently about ticket retailing: the onus should be on train companies and retailers to sell the right ticket, rather than on the passenger to buy the right ticket.

Passengers need to be guided more effectively to the right ticket for them, not have to guess from what can be a baffling array of different tickets.  This includes providing greater information on the restrictions attached to tickets, especially when sold via a ticket vending machine, and providing reassurance that passengers have been offered the cheapest fare for the journey.

For travellers wondering what to expect in the future, the Department for Transport's review of fares and ticketing will be welcome. Passenger Focus's submission to the review can be found on our website.

[1]  Fares and Ticketing Study. Passenger Focus.  2009.

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