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Trials aim to blow the dust off rail ticketing

03 Feb 2017

UK: A complete overhaul of the structure of Great Britain’s fares system is being planned by the Rail Delivery Group, with the aim of reflecting changes in the way passengers now travel and enabling bidders for future franchises to put forward more innovative ideas for ticketing. As the first stage in this process, three trials with CrossCountry, Virgin Trains’ East and West Coast franchises and East Midland Trains are to start in May.

An RDG source told Railway Gazette that the first step in the modernisation process would be to ‘blow the dust off’ the current system, which is based on regulations fixed in place with the privatisation of British Rail and assumes that ‘the world stopped’ in 1995. Most of the people who were involved in creating this system have since retired, and as a result ‘nobody fully understands’ or ‘has ownership of’ the whole structure.

New ticketing products can be added to the fares structure, but the removal of old products is impractical and so over the years further layers of complexity have been added to a product range which operators believe is already too crowded.

10-year vision

RDG’s 10-year vision is for ticketing to become ‘itinerary-based’. Long-distance travellers would be able to generate an instant journey plan which updates with the latest information in real-time, then pay for the journey they actually make. Most local journeys would be undertaken using products such as smart cards, mobile devices and contactless bank cards.

According to Russell Goodenough, Client Managing Director for Transport at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, simplifying the fares structure could ‘help enable the next generation of digital services that will improve the passenger experience, including smart and account-based ticketing’. 

The use of digital ticketing products could give operators a better understanding of their customers, and could remove the need for standalone discount railcards. Instead operators would be able to offer passengers more demographically and geographically tailored reductions than at present.  

Clare Gilmartin, CEO of independent ticket retailer Trainline, welcomed the fares simplification which she said could ‘make rail travel easier still with the roll out of UK-wide mobile ticketing by the end of 2018.’

Through fares

Arriva franchisee CrossCountry is to test the introduction of what RDG describes as ‘best value end-to-end through fares’ for journeys which involve a change of trains.

At the moment there are through fares between the vast majority of stations, but this means passengers planning long journeys, such as between southern England and Scotland, can be offered an extensive list of  very high fares ‘which in many cases nobody buys’. These ‘obsolete’ fares are required by the regulations but the industry believes they can discourage potential travellers, as well as generating misleading media and political attention.

Many passengers now know that it can be financially advantageous to split a journey into separate legs, using cheaper but less flexible tickets that are offered for parts of the trip but not for the end-to-end journey. One aim of the planned changes is to combine such split tickets into a single product which could be bought in one transaction.

Route validity

Stagecoach's East Midlands Trains, which operates between London and Sheffield, is to test changes to the rules on valid routes which RDG said ‘date back to when the direct service was much less frequent and journeys often needed a change of train via a longer route’. These rules mean ‘tickets are required to be available which are not in step with actual options available now.’

At present, flexible tickets are valid via ‘any permitted route’, with this being defined in a complex codification of British Rail’s terminology which referred to ‘any reasonable route’. It is envisaged that this could be replaced with a methodology whereby passengers pay for the journey they actually make. Passengers on a direct route would not pay more for flexibility that they do not need, while those choosing an indirect route could potentially be offered a discount for a slower journey.

While future ticketing systems would be able to offer 'as much flexibility as people want', RDG believes that the original purpose of offering various routes has been rendered obsolete by improvements to journey planning which can cover requirements for alternative routes much better than in the past.

Single leg pricing

Under the third element of the trial, the two Virgin Trains-branded inter-city franchises are to move towards selling most tickets as single rather than return journeys; in practice, RDG says this is already how most of their passengers buy tickets.

One aspect of the trial will be an assessment of whether the wider changes would be revenue-neutral; at the moment many return tickets cost only very slightly more than a single. A national move towards single portion pricing would require careful monitoring to see the effect on revenue and subsidy.

The future

The trials are designed to test the capabilities of modern ticketing systems, and to gather data on the impact that structural changes could have on passenger behaviour. Any wider roll-out of new ticketing concepts would be linked to the award of future operating franchises.

The next Great Western franchise offers an opportunity to cover a large region in one go. The West Coast Partnership franchise, which will combine the operation of existing West Coast Main Line services with the introduction of services on the first phase of High Speed 2, is also a major opportunity.

One industry insider has told Railway Gazette that ‘there is no way that HS2 will be ticketed in an old fashioned “any permitted” way’.