I welcome the Rail Delivery Group’s root and branch review of ticketing – but a splash of healthy realism needs to be delivered

 

Buying tickets the old fashioned way – at the ticket office – can be more expensive

 

The initiative by the Rail Delivery Group, representing all the train operating companies, to consult on a root and branch review of ticketing, is welcome, indeed overdue.

The rules that apply today were set in stone at the time of privatisation in 1995 and the changes that have taken place since, such as the penetration of advance tickets and individual franchise requirements, have only added to the complexity.

And even 1995’s rules simply reflected existing practice, so what we have now goes back even further. I recall in my short time with British Rail in the early 1980s a campaign to promote cheap day returns. One element was a poster showing Henry VIII at a ticket window, jocularly asking for “a cheap day return to Hampton Court”, underneath which some wag had written “and a single for the wife”.

Of course the cost to Henry would then, as today, have been virtually identical for the two tickets, so he might as well have bought two cheap day returns, just in case he was feeling benevolent.

But why are they virtually the same? Why is a cheap day single not half the price of a cheap day return? And that is just one of the anomalies. Perhaps we have all become so used to these that we no longer notice the illogicalities. So if this consultation is to be worthwhile, we need to address questions that have long been ignored.

Why is it more expensive to return from your destination the next day rather than the same day? Why, in other words, is a cheap day return cheaper than an off-peak period return?

Why is an off-peak return from Lewes to London so much cheaper than an off-peak return from London to Lewes?

Why, if you buy six split tickets to get you consecutively from Exeter Central to Sheffield on the 08.53, does it cost £46.80, whereas an advance ticket for the same non-split journey costs £70.20?

A lot has changed since 1995 and ticketing has to catch up

A lot has changed since 1995 and ticketing has to catch up. For one thing, there is a good deal more part-time working, or working odd days from home, or travelling at different times or from different locations. The weekly season ticket, which assumes you make five peak-hour return journeys a week between two fixed points, is now hopelessly inflexible. I have long wanted to see the introduction of French carnet-like tickets that give you a discount over a certain number of days, but not necessarily consecutively.

There may also be a limited case for the reintroduction of the old “workman’s ticket”, which gave a discount for travelling before the morning peak. Anything which spreads the passenger load more evenly has to be a good thing.

New technology opens the door to new ticket innovations. Since 1995 we have seen an explosion in the sale of advance tickets, made possible by the near universal uptake of internet access.

But technology also brings problems as well as opportunities. There are far too many stories of ticket machines not offering the full range of tickets, generally to the disadvantage of the passenger. It cannot be right, as the BBC recently reported, that a traveller at Worcester station was required to pay £53 for a ticket from the machine, but got the same ticket for £14 by going online while standing in the station.

And while the advent of advance tickets has been a very useful innovation – enabling the operators to fill spare capacity, and cutting fare costs for those prepared to be flexible when they travel – they have also added to the complexity of the ticketing regime. We now have a bewildering 55 million or so different tickets available. That’s about one for every person in the country.

So here’s a challenge. You cannot have simplicity as well as optimum pricing for each journey. What perhaps we can have, and don’t always, is a system that automatically offers the passenger the best price, and does so in a way that is easy to understand.

The industry also needs to be careful that the use of technology does not discriminate against groups that are not tooled up. While nearly everyone is online these days, a small number are not, so miss out on the best offers. And if the industry wants to maximise the potential of mobile phones, it must not do so in a way that means those who choose not to use them end up paying more. People should not be rewarded for their enthusiasm for new technology or their savviness in handling it.

The review also needs to tie in with consideration of the future of the paper ticket. There has long been talk of moving away from this staple of the industry, but is that still happening? Is there in the future still going to be something which actually is a “ticket”, any more than there is still a “dial” on the telephone? Are we in 20 years’ time still going to have gatelines at our stations? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the review needs to be clear on them, as it may well affect what can or cannot be adopted going forward.

Finally, I have no wish to pour cold water over what is a welcome initiative, but a splash of healthy realism needs to be delivered. Even assuming the industry, after its consultation exercise, can produce a coherent and imaginative package of reforms, and that is some challenge, they will then still have to get it past the government, and indeed through Parliament, as many changes will require changes to that 1995 primary legislation.

The Rail Delivery Group has sensibly decided that the final package should be cost neutral, which both avoids accusations that this is a back-door, money-making scam, and reassures the government that the industry is not asking for more public money.

However cost neutral means winners and losers, unless nothing at all is to change. So for every person who is going to benefit from a new cheap day single at half the price of a return, someone else is going to have to pay more.

Ministers know very well that in such circumstances, those who lose out complain loudly and bitterly, while those who gain tend to keep quiet. It is one of the reasons there has been no review of the Council Tax base since it was introduced in 1993, although everyone accepts that the base is now hopelessly out of date. And water rates are still based on the 1973 rateable value of a property, although the rates themselves were abolished back in 1989.

The danger therefore is that ministers will welcome the final report but kick it into the long grass, or adopt only those recommendations which are palatable, that is to say, those which do not lose votes.

Ministers will have to be courageous – the word Sir Humphrey used to deploy in Yes Minister to try to dissuade his minister from doing something

It may not be on the front line, but an essential part of the industry’s strategy therefore needs to be about political engagement. Ministers will have to be courageous – the word Sir Humphrey used to deploy in Yes Minister to try to dissuade his minister from doing something. The industry has made a good start by engaging Transport Focus and by having a public consultation, so building a broad base for change beyond its narrow ranks. If they can in the end produce a package that is sensible and coherent, we may finally be able to eliminate many of the inconsistencies and illogicalities that plague the system we presently have.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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