Make fares simpler by ditching ‘advance purchase’

Easier said than done. Which probably explains why we hear so many calls for simpler fares but see so little action.
In general terms, railway companies offer single and return tickets, flexible and inflexible tickets and all in first or standard class. Flexible tickets range from those valid for travel at any time and those only valid at certain times (usually outside peak periods). Inflexible tickets tie a passenger to a particular train. The more flexibility you need, the more you’ll usually pay. The exception are season tickets which are the most flexible available but have high prices that mask their amazing value for money for each individual journey – provided you make many journeys, as daily commuters generally do. The result is bewildering choice of fares.
I’m writing this just before jumping on a train from York to Newcastle. National Rail Enquiries (NRE) shows a CrossCountry (XC) at 1432, a slightly slower Virgin Trains East Coast train (VTEC) at 1435 and then another XC at 1448.
Today’s 1432 is cancelled. The 1435 is offering me a £37.70 off-peak single as its cheapest fare. I could use that on other trains because it’s an inter-available fare although NRE doesn’t explicitly say so. I could buy a £43.60 ticket that says it’s ‘anytime’. That means it’s not subject to peak restrictions. I’m also offered a £53.40 first class anytime fare and a £61.00 first class off-peak fare. Hovering my cursor over the label next to those fares reveals that the £53.40 fare is an anytime day single so could be used on other trains. The more expensive off-peak fare reveals itself to be a return fare valid only on VTEC.
In total, NRE offers 11 different fares for this York-Newcastle journey. They include a £96.00 off-peak fare that turns out to be a North Country Rover but NRE doesn’t explain what that means. There are also ‘short returns’ but it’s not clear whether this refers to time or distance.
Meanwhile the 1448 is offering 14 different fares. Some are the same as those for the VTEC train – the North Country Rover is there as well as the ‘valid on any trains’ fares. XC’s cheapest is a £14.90 advance ticket because it offers advance fares until only minutes before the train is due. It also offers advance fares for £17.50, £21.70 and £30.20. All four fares will only be valid on that day’s 1448 so I can’t understand why the more expensive trio are visible. Surely, I’ll be buying exactly the same product for £14.90 as for £30.20?
TransPennine Express has a 1508 in case I miss the other two by taking too long to decide about my ticket. It has 18 different fares on offer. Once again, some are actually returns, some are valid only on TPE and some are the same tickets offered by the other companies and valid with any of the competing operators. Confused? Yes, I am. NRE presents too many choices. It’s demonstrated why people complain that rail fares in Britain are too complicated. Despite my asking about a single journey, it presented fares that were for a return journey but didn’t clearly label them as such. Better perhaps not to present them?
Now, it’s true that I clicked to expand the simpler lists that NRE initially presented of the cheapest fare for each train and the cheapest fare overall. I could just have clicked the ‘buy now’ button for that XC £14.90 fare.
Using brfares.com I found there are 77 different single fares between York and Newcastle, with the vast majority advance fares and the cheapest a TPE advance ticket for £4.
The easiest way to simplify fares would be to remove this plethora of advance purchase tickets. They accounted for only 15.1% of GB ticket revenue in 2016/17, up from 12.1% in 2010/11 which is the first year for which the Office of Rail and Road has statistics. By contrast, off-peak tickets brought in 31.6% of total revenue, peak tickets 29.0% and seasons 23.0%. ORR classed a further 1.3% as ‘other’ – that’ll be the North Country Rover, its cousins and other oddities.
The message is clear. Most of the confusion and complication in rail fares comes from all those advance purchase tickets that contribute so little overall. Ditch them and have done.
Harder to say what effect this might have on train operator and government finances. Some passengers would desert rail if AP fares disappeared because the walk-on alternatives are usually more expensive. But some would stay and pay the extra. So it’s not clear just how much of the £1.4 billion that advance fares garnered in 2016/17 would be completely lost.
They also have some advantages for train operators. They keep all the income earned from AP fares that are valid only on their trains. The income from inter-available tickets must be shared with other operators serving the same stations with the proportion depending on the results of occasional surveys of passengers. It means that if an operator ups its game with competitive fares and great on-board service, it can net the results of that work by making those fares valid only on its services.
Cheaper advance tickets allow operators to fill seats that might otherwise by empty. For marginal costs, rail companies can increase their income and reach their premium payment goals. From this perspective, the extra revenue is almost free. Yet there’s a sting in the tail of advance purchase tickets. They come with seat reservations and this raises the prospect of passengers with more expensive tickets standing. Not that this costs train operators much other than goodwill – they sell only travel not seats.
Advance tickets are more trouble than they’re worth. Ditch them. Yes, they’ll be an outcry but weather it and rail tickets will be so much simpler.

This article first appeared in RAIL 849, published on March 28 2018.