Industry views: How can the UK improve its rail fare system?

UK rail organisations are calling for a complete overhaul of rail fares, arguing that the system must be transparent and offer more flexible fares. Joe Baker asks industry experts: what steps do you believe should be taken to improve the UK’s rail fare system? 

With delays and cancellations pummelling the reputation of UK rail operators in June, what better time to ask passengers their views on rail fares? The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), a membership body linking British rail companies, has done just that, launching a three-month public consultation that it hopes will provoke major changes to the UK’s rail fare system in the near future.

The current fares system is rooted in stagnant ticketing regulations that have remained largely unchanged since they were introduced in 1995. Individual franchise agreements made things even more complicated, and there are currently a whopping 55 million different fares available.

Recent research from KPMG shows that just 34% of UK rail customers are very confident that they bought the best value ticket for their last journey. According to RDG, rail fare regulations have failed to keep pace with the rise of smartphone technology and modern working practices, with part-time working and self-employment having increased by over a third in 22 years.

Last month, major rail companies called for a ‘root and branch’ reform of the UK’s system in a bid to make fares fairer. But what do representatives across the rail industry think should be done to improve the system?

Andy Wakeford

Head of fares and retail support at Rail Delivery Group

At this stage, we’re not advocating any changes to the fares system because we have launched a fares reform consultation in June and we’re encouraging customers, businesses, passenger groups, stakeholders, employees and the public to have their say. The outcomes from the consultation will help us to understand what the country wants to see from an up-to-date, easier fares and ticketing system. We will then make proposals to government this autumn about how the system can be reformed.

As part of the consultation, we are asking people and organisations whether options around fare structures and buying tickets should be considered. Examples are fares based on distance travelled, the level of service received or the time of booking; fares based on loyalty to regular travellers; fares which provide savings to certain groups in society (e.g. young people, older people, people with disabilities); a price cap for passengers who make the same journey on a regular basis; and online accounts for rail and other types of public transport.

Bruce Williamson

Spokesperson at advocacy group Railfuture

The price of fares is very expensive, but RDG said [the consultation] would not affect the overall level of fares, which is kind of missing the point. We have this already ridiculously complex fares structure in this country, and so the idea of factoring in yet another layer of complication based on how comfortable the seats are or how reliable the journey is seems to me to be going in the wrong direction really. We want a simplified fares structure where it’s easy for your average ticket buyer to get a good deal and not have to know the tricks of the trade or have to jump through any hoops, and I think that’s where the focus should be put.

Basically, the overall level of fares is very much in the hands of the government. One of the things we definitely should do is stop increasing the prices by inflation. The Retail Price Index (RPI) measure is the higher measure of inflation and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is the lower measure, but when it comes to rail fares [the government] goes for the preferred RPI because it’s higher.

Steve Chambers

Public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport

The problem is the ticket prices. If you buy the annual season ticket, you get your decent daily equivalent price to travel, but if you start using a day ticket, once you get to three days – and you're doing that over the course of the year – you're then actually paying more than the person buying the annual ticket. So it's actually better value for someone travelling three or four days a week to buy an annual ticket and not use it for part of the week, which is obviously not fair when compared to someone who's using it five days a week.

What we’re pushing for as a number one change in this consultation is the introduction of flexible season tickets so that people who are working every week but aren’t travelling on every single day of the week can purchase a product that gives equivalent savings to someone using an annual season ticket. We can see that actually if [rail companies] don’t do this, they are threatening their revenues.

Christian Wolmar

Broadcaster and journalist specialising in the transport sector

While RDG’s consultation is welcome, it’s difficult to see how any proposals that they make will be revenue neutral. It would require a complete overhaul of the rail fares system, and I’m not entirely certain how they would be able to do this.

There are enormous benefits of rail fare simplification because I think people are put off by the high fares on some routes. I think the whole thing should be reversed so that the basic fare should be relatively cheap, like the off-peak one-way fare, and then you might have to pay extra to be on certain trains rather than the other way around, whereby the standard fare is high and then you get discounts when you travel on off-peak trains. That would kind of open it up so that people would have a much greater understanding that, basically, train travel is quite cheap but it’s more expensive to travel at peak times. Of course, there’s a contradiction that you get a discount having a season ticket, even though you’re travelling at peak times.

Dave Ashton

CEO of online train ticket booking service Loco2

What the RDG really need to do is make data access cheaper. They've embarked on a process already and I'm acknowledging that. If you are an operator, you have the ability to access your data for free as much as you want. For [Loco2], if we show you anything more than the next train that’s going to leave based on your chosen hour of departure that increases our look-to-book ratios and pushes us closer to having to pay penalties to the operators because we've offered you a rich data set in return. So for us to show you the cheapest train available on the day, that costs us money, but the train operators only pay very low commissions when we sell a ticket for them.

Simplifying fares is not important at all. There’s some value in it. But what's really important is providing free data access for third parties, [allowing them] to return data to a customer in such a way that it gives them confidence that they're getting the lowest price for the period that they might want to travel. Customers need to utilise the tools at their fingertips to find the best fares on the internet rather than going to a human being at a station, saying “What’s the best fare?”, and they just give you one fare.