What price loyalty?

Richard Freeston-Clough of London TravelWatch recommends the steps the rail industry must take to act on some of the worrying findings from research into annual season tickets.

Every year, over one million commuters living in and around London spend more than £2bn on season tickets to travel to and from their place of work. These are the most loyal customers, sometimes paying a quarter of their annual take-home pay in fares.

Yet research by London TravelWatch shows that the majority of these commuters are unaware of the full range of ticket products available to them. Some are paying more than they need to and others do not trust their operator with such large amounts of money.

Our findings show that TfL and National Rail operators need to do more to communicate the features and benefits of different tickets and to provide help and support when customers buy annual season tickets.

It is time that these high-spending and loyal customers are treated with the respect they deserve, not as a captive market, and operators should be more open in explaining the true benefits of season tickets – and whether there are better options.

Our review of London Underground’s (LU’s) ticket office closures found that annual season ticket holders felt especially hard done by from the process, so we decided to commission research to explore their needs and the reasons transport users choose particular products.

The results of our research show that passengers are generally happy to use online services to find help and information. However, for large value purchases like annual season tickets, many prefer and are reassured by a face-to-face transaction. On top of this, many people are unaware of the further discounts they are entitled by virtue of their Gold Card, which comes with their annual season ticket. But most worryingly, some commuters are actually buying tickets that cost them more than they need to pay for their journeys, especially now that Oyster and contactless payments enable flexibility.

Our research found that some passengers who previously purchased annual season tickets from LU now buy these from National Rail or London Overground ticket offices because these provide the reassurance of a face-to-face transaction. However, it also showed that the closure of LU ticket offices means users now anticipate inconvenience and difficulties in the event of needing to change or cancel their annual season ticket, and are concerned about the need to conduct transactions online, because they are unsure whether LU staff are able to provide the previous level of help or knowledge.

Many people rely on an interest-free season ticket loan from their employer to enable them to purchase an annual season ticket, but the closure of LU ticket offices has made it more difficult for people issued with a company cheque to do this. In the course of our research, we found evidence that some employers are attempting to phase out the use of company cheques and instead use company credit cards to make the transaction. However, other employers have continued to insist on the use of company cheques. This meant that some members of the focus groups experienced difficulties purchasing annual season tickets at the time they needed them.

This suggests a need for TfL and train operators to engage with businesses to encourage them to use systems such as BACS to transfer funds, rather than company cheques.

It is well known that many commuters see season tickets as a grudge purchase for services where they are a captive market, but if operators can make these improvements, they can at least ensure that passengers get the best possible value for money. This should in turn lead to improved satisfaction levels and greater trust in the system.

London TravelWatch’s research on annual season tickets will be available at:


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