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TOCs urged to refund passengers as 20% missing out on best tickets

TOCs are being urged to refund passengers after a mystery shopper experiment conducted by the rail regulator found that 20% of buyers either selected a more expensive ticket than necessary or put themselves at risk of a penalty fare when using a ticket machine.

Overall, one in five of the ORR’s mystery shoppers – of which there were 721 in total – missed out on the best possible ticket. Around 7% didn’t choose the most flexible ticket for their journey (and the majority risked a penalty fare) whilst 13% actually chose a more expensive ticket than needed.

The experiment also revealed that two-thirds (65%) of mystery shoppers weren’t able to see any information on the type of tickets they could or couldn’t buy on the machine, whilst more than half (57%) reported their machines didn’t explain the time when peak and off-peak tickets could be used.

Almost a third of them also said no information on ticket restrictions or validity was provided when using the machine.

Although the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has drafted a 10-point fares improvement plan this month, with a pledge to deliver it by the end of the year, the ORR has asked the organisation to make clearer “what it expects to be delivered, by whom and when”, in the short term.

It also called on operators to introduce a price guarantee in the meantime, refunding passengers who find that they could have purchased a cheaper ticket – which the regulator argued was imperative to build trust and “demonstrate they are responding to passengers’ needs”.

TOCs must also learn lessons from the ORR’s research findings and “adopt good practice”, including by providing clear information on available tickets and their restrictions and validities.

But a spokesman for the RDG stressed that train companies are already working to reform fares “through a number of agreed trials which will enable simplification of the fares structure”. He argued “complex and decades-old” government rail fare regulations naturally make it more difficult for operators to offer the right and simpler options on ticket machines.

John Larkinson, its director of railway markets and economics, who was interviewed by RTM in the latest issue, emphasised that any and all rail travellers “should be able to buy the most appropriate ticket for their journey”.

“Despite investment in new technology and the removal of jargon from ticket machines, our new research shows passengers may be paying more for their journey than necessary,” he added. “Our mystery shoppers found ticket machines are missing important information on ticket choice, restrictions and validity.

“To quickly benefit passengers, the RDG must set out what improvements to ticket machines will be made in the short term, and we are calling on train companies to commit to refund anyone who finds that they could have bought a cheaper ticket for the same journey.”

The regulator continues to monitor the industry’s efforts of improving ticket machines and revealed it will be repeating this shopper research in a year’s time.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, who also appeared in the latest edition of RTM writing about proper passenger compensation, underlined that the watchdog’s own independent research showed ticket machines need to operate “like a human ticket clerk”, steering people to buy the ticket they want “rather than baffling them with too many options”. They should also set out any restrictions for travel, such as peak or off-peak times.

“The industry has recently published an action plan setting out improvements. The ORR research increases the impetus for implementing the recommendations as soon as possible,” added Smith.

“ORR’s research shows that buying the right ticket from a TVM can be far too hit and miss.  Passengers need to be confident that they can buy the right ticket for their needs.”

(Top image c. Lauren Hurley and PA Wire)

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Jerry Alderson   14/02/2017 at 20:40

I'm trying to understand the statistical validity of this ORR exercise... It would be useful to know whether these were 721 different people or a total of 721 transactions from far fewer people, and whether these were random purchases or if they were asked to buy tickets when there was a large chance of making a mistake. For example, did they attempt to use a TVM around 9am on a weekday, when the peak to off-peak switchover was about to happen. I think the evening peak restrictions are a minefield. The GTR zonal one is particularly confusing to infrequent travellers. Ths solution must surely be to provide more capacity (i.e. seats per hour) rather than restrict travel times. The thing that really annoys me is a TVM offering an Anytime Single or Anytime Day Return ticket (i.e. for "today") at the weekend when there is also an off-peak one. I use a lot, but it shows far too many fares as default. For an 'off-peak day return' I'd like it to show me just the basic one and tell me that there are 'n' others (e.g. bus extensions) and allow me to click to see them.

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