The Last Word

01.11.12

‘Still a big increase in regulated fares’

Source: Rail Technology Magazine October/November 2012

Passenger Focus Anthony Smith discusses the current fares structure in the light of the Government’s decision to hold the increase at RPI+1%.

Passengers struggling to work in the cold this winter will be relieved to note that the prime minister has now announced that regulated rail fares will rise in the New Year by RPI (3.2%) plus 1% – not the +3% that was announced last year.

Passenger Focus welcomes the news – for hard-pressed passengers who rely on the train, especially those who don’t have the option to change the times they travel to take advantage of cheaper options, this will come as good news.

However, the result is still a big increase in regulated fares. Passengers in the UK already pay some of the highest fares in Europe and our most recent passenger survey showed that just 42% felt they had got value for money on their ticket. This figure drops to 29% for commuters. While part of the assessment of value depends on the delivery of a punctual, frequent service a great deal is based simply on the cost of the ticket.

In 2009 we conducted an in-depth comparison between rail fares in Great Britain and continental Europe. It looked at fares, service frequency and speed on journeys in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. This found that travelling by train in Britain, especially for commuting, was more expensive than it was elsewhere in Europe, but 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 there is merit in incentivising commuters to travel outside the peak, passengers would struggle with any attempts to squeeze demand by increasing peak fares – i.e. a super-peak premium. Such a move ignores the fact that peak fares are already high and that 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 high peak premium.

The huge gap between the Advance ‘one train only, no refunds’ price and the price of a flexible ticket frustrates passengers. Research among business travellers shows they feel forced into paying high prices because they cannot be sure when meetings will finish or that their plans will not change. Not everyone is capable of planning up to 12 weeks ahead.

There are things that can be done:

• Incentives to encourage commuters to travel outside the peak – e.g. discounts if arriving after 09.30; or carnet-style tickets that reward working from home. The roll-out of smartticketing should facilitate the development of new products to encourage this.

• Introducing single-leg pricing (where singles are half the price of a return) to allow passengers to mix and match between Advance and Off-Peak fares (i.e. to allow an element of flexibility on one leg).

• Introduce an element of flexibility to Advance fares – e.g. if a passenger misses the train on which they booked an Advance ticket, the sum paid already should count towards the new ticket they need to buy.

However, it is not just about the price of tickets. Many passengers continue to feel that the fares structure is too complicated, confusing and illogical. The chief complaint is often one of having to navigate an obstacle course of restrictions attached to tickets – e.g. 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 and less 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.

Taking this thought further, we know that passengers face inconsistent treatment when travelling without a ‘valid’ ticket. Our research has shown that passengers who make an innocent mistake can find themselves facing a hefty bill, or in some of the worst cases, a criminal prosecution.

We want to see:

• The introduction of a code of practice for non Penalty Fare areas which sets out clear and consistent guidelines on how passengers who board without a ‘valid’ ticket should be dealt with.

• Passengers should only face criminal prosecution when there is proof of intent to defraud

• Greater flexibility when a passenger can prove they bought a valid ticket but cannot produce the ticket (or all of them) when asked

• Greater transparency on how many penalties are issued, for what, and how many appeals are upheld or overturned.

The Association of Train Operating Companies has already agreed to co-ordinate the drawing up of national guidelines to ensure more consistent treatment of passengers.

It is in the interests of train operating companies that passengers are confident in what they are buying. We know that passengers need more trust in what they are paying for, and that they will be treated fairly if mistakes happen. The next round of the Passenger Satisfaction Survey is out in February – it will be interesting to see if any improvement has yet been made.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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