Tuesday, 26 July 2011

How Much Is That Ticket To Ride?

My old boss Anthony Smith at Passenger Focus is very good at DIY - he often hits the nail on the head when it comes to passenger issues.
News this week that Passenger Focus has concerns about the thorny old issue of train fares is nothing new. But top marks again to the watchdog for highlighting - and continuing to highlight - this aspect of rail travel.
Everyone loves a bargain. And you can actually get some really good ones on Britain's railways. London Midland have been running promotions which offer some quite stunning cheap fares if you book on the internet, in advance, and travel off-peak. Ditto Chiltern Railways, who have created something quite special on the London-Birmingham market in recent years.
But if your mind boggles trying to navigate budget airline's websites to find a bargain for the family holiday once or twice a year, spare a thought for regular rail travellers, who pour over their computers for hours on end comparing and contrasting the myriad offers and permutations on offer from a seemingly ever-increasing amount of websites who can sell you a rail ticket. "2 singles could be cheaper than a return" they cry. Indeed they could. "We don't charge booking fees" declare another. The more savvy amongst the train ticket hunter-gatherers also play the game of "splitting", whereby you can find even more savings if you book 2 singles for one length of journey - so long as your particular train actually stops at the station you're "splitting" at. For example, if you travel from Wolverhampton to Manchester in the morning peak, you can virtually half your fare by "splitting" at Stoke-on-Trent. So you order Wolverhampton to Stoke, Stoke to Manchester and vice-versa for the return. So long as your train actually stops at Stoke, not merely passes through Stoke.
Bargain indeed. But how many people know this? And how many people want the hassle of spending hours trying to work this out?
You can do this, but you can't do that. Travel on this "TOC" only ("what's a TOC?", the uninitiated cry). You can travel quite cheaply long distance if you book all of the legs in advance, split tickets here and there and travel off-peak (even "off-peak" varies on different bits of the network). And avoid peak time travel - but who would guess that all trains from Birmingham City Centre stations from 4.35pm on weekdays would be "peak"? And why?
And what if one of your connections doesn't work and you're on lots of cheaply booked specific journeys? More worries and concerns.
We all know that "walk up" fares are the most expensive. The term "eye-watering" could have been coined for that very experience. Just how did we get to over £150 for a walk up peak time fare from Birmingham to London on Virgin? Is it to price off the railways everyone except those who necessarily have to travel at that time (and often have it paid for by their employers)? There is an argument to be had about capacity on our railways - and we could have hours in the pub over a pint and cheese cob discussing what HS2 might offer us there - but there is no doubt that non-regular travellers are often shocked to see the raw cost of rail travel if they haven't played the "hunt the cheap fare" game for hours on the net in the previous few weeks.
We all accept that we pay a premium for flexibility. But are we necessarily going the right way with such practices involving seemingly endless options for ticketing on websites so that we might save a few pounds? Could this be damaging the perceptions of the overall travel experience using our railways?
The best retail experiences are the simple ones. No nonsense prices that make the offer desirable and irresistible.
We're a long way from that when it comes to railway ticketing.

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