Rail fares need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century

Commuters deserve the choice of part-time season tickets. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

Commuters deserve the choice of part-time season tickets. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR - Credit: Lucy taylor

This week’s announcement that Britain’s rail industry is finally looking at its archaic fares structure is welcome – but way overdue!

The current fare structure pre-dates privatisation, dating from the early 1990s when British Rail (remember them?) was running the trains and divided its management into “business centres.”

There was InterCity, Regional Railways, and Network SouthEast – and all had their own fare structure that did not really relate to each other.

Also the pattern of work was very different to what it is now. Most people worked essentially 9-5, five days a week and if you wanted a season ticket, you wanted one that was valid every weekday.

British Rail, of course, also allowed you to use it at weekends so you could essentially get free leisure trips to London or wherever on your days off. Lucky you!

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Rail privatisation brought in many reforms, and did lead to an growth in pre-booked long-distance tickets. But it has never addressed many of the anomalies faced by the majority of rail ticket holders.

Many rail companies – Greater Anglia and its predecessors among them – have tried to mitigate some of the effects of these anomalies, but nothing has been done to address the underlying problems that rail passengers face.

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The legacy of the sectorisation of British Rail still lingers and while staff do now try to help passengers get the best deal (they didn’t always), it can still be a bit of a minefield for an unwary traveller.

The obvious example for this part of the world is that leisure passengers heading from Ipswich to London for a day out at the weekend can save £6.40 if they split the ticket at Manningtree. That is buy a day return ticket from Ipswich to Manningtree and another day return ticket from Manningtree to London rather than a saver ticket from Ipswich to London.

So long as you catch a train that stops at Manningtree (and there is only one train a day that goes straight through the station) you can save yourself the cost of a snack lunch at a coffee shop!

Now if you go up to the ticket office in Ipswich you will be offered this split as a matter of course – but when I first found about it and asked for a split ticket about 25 years ago, older ticket staff were very sniffy about it.

I was once even told that if I wanted to do that, I’d have to get off at Manningtree and get back on the train! I checked with the BR press office at the time and was told that was nonsense – but station staff certainly weren’t promoting that split!

The other issue that has been a real bugbear for many travellers is the fact that until now rail companies have not offered “part-time” season tickets to people who might travel regularly to their work – but not necessarily five days a week.

If you travel into London to work more than one day a week and work from home (or another workplace near your home) for the rest of the working week, you need to buy a season ticket because that would work out cheaper than buying more than one peak-time return a week.

But it’s pretty galling to have to pay the same to travel twice a week as you would to travel five times a week. It really is time that the rail companies woke up to the fact that not all their commuters use the trains every day.

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge has taken up their case – he has many such commuters in his constituency and I can well understand their frustration.

It’s not really a problem that Greater Anglia can sort in isolation – it is something that the whole industry needs to tackle so the news that the Rail Delivery Group is working on trying to reach a solution is very welcome.

But there could be an effect on companies’ revenues – if fewer people are commuting every day and they are getting lower fares, then ticket prices generally might have to rise to maintain the necessary level of investment in the network.

Overall, though, that is a relatively small issue at this stage. The important thing for the industry is that fares are seen to be transparent and fair.

The one hope is that this review of fares will be completed reasonably quickly and it will come up with some really significant solutions to the issues faced by passengers – not just a load of fudged platitudes that skirt around the edge of the problems and do not really address the underlying issues faced by the rail industry.

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