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Is it so hard to give passengers what they want?

Former campaigner's picture
picture of train tickets

Last week the Office of Rail and Road published the outcome of their inquiry into the retail market for train tickets. The inquiry, which began two and half years ago, set out to examine how ticket sales could be more in tune with passenger interests. We have long campaigned for tickets to be simpler, fairer and cheaper. While the ORR has come up with some useful conclusions, the inquiry has moved the debate on only a little and passed some of the thorniest issues on for others to deal with. Why is it so difficult to give passengers what they want?

The watchword of the ORR inquiry was ‘choice’ – how to increase choice in the types of ticket sold, choice in who sells them, and choice in when and where you can get hold of them. The ORR considered whether a wider range of outlets should sell tickets – for example local shops. It examined whether more third parties should be able to sell tickets directly. And it looked at whether ticket sellers should be able to flex the price of tickets depending on how they were purchased.

This move toward more flexibility has much to commend it and there could be upsides to all of these approaches. But on their own, they don't add up to very much and could actually make things more confusing.

We often hear complaints from passengers who are baffled by the complexity of ticketing. Labyrinthine time restrictions, multiple fare choices for the same journey, vending machines that do not offer you the cheapest price, bizarre split ticketing options, and much else form a confusing landscape which prevents people from getting the best ticket for their journey. The ORR's plans do very little to tackle this picture. Indeed, by considering adding more ticket types, more sellers and more discretion in how much fares cost, they proposed creating a competitive market for ticket sellers that could easily have made things significantly worse for passengers.

The ORR pointed to the airline industry as an example of how competition can help drive down ticket prices and respond to passenger demand. But rail and aviation operate in very different ways. Unlike planes, rail specialises in everyday journeys where there is little or no choice in the station travelled from, the destination, and in most cases the train company being travelled with.

In contributing to the ORR inquiry, Campaign for Better Transport argued strongly that more should be done to ensure changes were in passengers’ interests and not choice for choices sake. The good news is that the ORR accepted many of our arguments and dropped some proposals, for example not allowing ticket sellers to flex the cost of a fare depending on how you buy the ticket. There is also good news that specific complaints about ticket machines are being taken up, with the ORR due to report in March 2017 on whether the industry is treating passengers fairly.

But elsewhere the report has a real sense of anti-climax. Key decisions have been bunted on into other forums such as the new Cross Industry Group on Rail Ticketing (a joint rail industry / Government initiative). The industry continues to resist beneficial changes such as involving a consumer champion in decisions about ticketing. Improvements that passengers want to see - flexible season tickets, shoulder pricing, and single leg pricing, for example - are all still some way off. 

Of course, some improvements around ticketing are coming forward. Compensation arrangements are being improved because the Government is rightly applying the Consumer Rights Act to rail. Action to revamp access to compensation is underway after Which? successfully issued a super-complaint over delayed and cancelled trains. The Government's plans to make compensation payable when trains are 15 rather than 30 minutes late will help, too. 

These arangements mean passengers are better protected when things go wrong. But, after a two and a half year inquiry, many rail users will ask why they are still waiting for a ticketing system that gives them what they want. 


Image curtesy of Alan Parkinson via Flickr.


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