29 July 2016

Crossed points - how railway companies are still taking passengers for a ride

Railway companies are not moving fast enough to deliver fairer ticketing

When planning rail journeys, I've had to spent longer than should be necessary through having to check a few rail websites to ensure I get the most suitable ticket. It's frustrating that I can't be confident enough to just enter my details and buy.

You can't be sure that you are getting all the train and ticket price information you need from even the authoritative websites, such as the National Rail Enquiries website (run by the Association of Train Operating Companies - ATOC), or at the train operating companies own individual websites as well as on the websites of third parties. Government can get energy companies to now offer understandable and complete price information; why can't similar happen with rail?

Hidden Trains

Rail websites - including NRE and the train operating companies' own sites - don't list some trains. Read the exchange (from the bottom) that I had on Twitter last month with NRE about this problem:

This week, The Times has run a series of articles reporting about this 'hidden trains' flaw, as well as about other problems such as how rail companies won't tell you how you can save money by splitting tickets. That's when you buy a ticket, say from London to Coventry and from Coventry to Manchester, that might be cheaper than a ticket from London to Manchester. You can use these split tickets on the same train, as long as it stops in Coventry and with no need to change at that intermediate station.

In response to this negative coverage, the rail industry appears to have realised it needs to make some conciliatory noises. But are they moving their position as much as they are suggesting? 

Airline style ticketing  

In today's Times, there's a further article about rail fares and which has a misleading comment that is attributed to the Rail Delivery Group - RDG (a rail trade body - Network Rail and the train and freight operating companies). It's announcing as new - and with a fanfare - something that has been long established: Airline style ticketing.

This pick 'n' mix style ticketing, that is proclaimed in the article, has been here for a long time. Look at this example from the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website, for a trip from London to Manchester and back, today, with outward travel during peak time and return travel off-peak.

You can buy the Anytime return for £322 but it's cheaper to 'pick 'n' mix & buy an Anytime single (£166) out & an Off-peak single for the return (£41.20) for a total of £207.20. But it's no big deal - most people know that's what you do; buy two differently priced singles rather than buy a peak return ticket if you are only travelling during the peak period in one direction. So this is hardly the "better and more transparent" deal that the RDG claim.

(I wonder whether Airline style pricing - dynamic pricing where prices constantly change to reflect demand - may ever be widely used for rail in the UK?)

Unpublicised tickets
I was pleased to see the RDG stating in today's article that "Passengers would be given the option of slower, cheaper trains". But will all the 'hidden' trains be publicised? That's the issue covered in the tweets above but let me give more detail:

Look at these screenshots from NRE and London Midland websites for travel this morning from London Euston to Perry Barr. 

Note how the 0749 London Midland train is not listed by NRE. It's a much slower journey but it has only the same single change (at Birmingham New Street station) as the faster journeys that include Virgin Trains (London to Birmingham). But this alternative by London Midland only is £36 cheaper. 

Unnecessary delay?

The RDG also say today that "most of the changes it was suggesting required government approval." Really? What's to stop NRE listing the hidden trains on their website straightaway?