Business

Train firms want overhaul of ticket system

Thameslink train Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rail operators want fare regulations to change

Traditional peak and off-peak rail fares face the axe under sweeping changes being proposed for the UK's train ticketing system.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train operators, wants to eliminate the "cliff edge" between peak and off-peak prices.

It argues that this would reduce overcrowding.

Also, tap-in, tap-out rail fares could be expanded beyond London under the proposals published on Monday.

The RDG's wish list of reforms is based on some 20,000 submissions on how the UK railways could be improved.

Transport Focus, the independent passenger watchdog which also worked on the consultation, said UK train operators currently offered an "outdated and outmoded fares and ticketing system".

Fair fares

Feedback from commuters found eight out of 10 want the fares system overhauled and nine out of 10 want smart or electronic tickets, with the potential for price capping.

Image copyright Transport for London
Image caption Pay-as-you-go fares and daily capping are already used for London commutes

The Rail Delivery Group said reforms would support tap-in, tap-out fares - a pay-as-you-go method used in London - and more integration with other modes of transport.

In London, tube and rail commuters can use contactless bank cards to automatically pay fares which are calculated based on where a passenger enters and exits the network.

Reform would mean updating regulations around peak and off-peak travel, the RDG said, and ticket prices could be set more flexibly. This would reduce overcrowding, it said.

Paul Plummer, RDG chief executive, said customers had different needs and wanted changes that offered value and better reflected changing work habits.

"Rail companies are already working together on plans for real world trials so people can see what our proposals could mean for them," he said.

All change

Rail companies needed the government to change rules on how train fares were charged, he added.

"Current regulation needs to be updated and we want to work with government, which is key to making improvements a reality, to deliver the better fares system the public wants to see."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The vast majority of rail users surveyed wanted changes to train fares

The government is currently undertaking the Rail Review which is covering everything from commercial contracts to rail fare structures. Its consultation closes at the end of May.

The RDG said its ideas could be rolled out, train operator by train operator, in as little as three years.

Darren Shirley, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said the existing system was "broken and desperately needs fixing".

"We're particularly pleased to see proposals for more flexible commuter tickets to reflect modern work patterns, something we've long called for, and for nationwide smart ticketing.

"What's not clear however, is if these proposals will also lead to an end to the annual fares rise, which fails to reflect the level of service passengers receive the previous year.

"It is now up to the government to take forward these proposals to ensure we have a fares system that is fairer and easier to use."

Another proposal is to stop passengers having to buy split tickets to get the cheapest fares for some journeys.

Analysis

Tom Burridge, BBC transport correspondent

How to reform the railways is a contentious, some might say politically toxic subject right now. A broad government-commissioned review into almost every aspect of the system is ongoing.

Our out-dated and mind-bogglingly complicated ticketing system is a prime candidate for change. The system is, in the eyes of many, inherently flawed.

How can an off-peak single sometimes cost a fraction less than a return? And how can it be that you get different prices for exactly the same journey?

Technology is clearly a big part of the solution. But a tap-in, tap-out system which automatically ensures you the best fare for your journey is also partly about restoring trust. The t-word has become a precious commodity on the tracks of late, after a whole host of problems.

The underlying message from train companies today is that they are on the side of passengers. They want to shunt the government towards positive change.

More types of flexible fares is one thing, but cost and who pays will, as always, be almost every passenger's central concern.

To make the proposals 'revenue neutral', as the operators plan, cheaper fares would have to be offset by more expensive ones. That is, unless the changes drive more people to travel by train, especially on more empty off-peak services.

The initial mood music from those representing passengers is broadly positive. But some fear there could be winners and losers.

Even with the support of government, one industry source said real change might not arrive for another three to five years.

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