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Roads to Nowhere

Northern's new rule - a potential disaster for railway travel

Guest blogger and rail fares expert Barry Doe describes the confusing - and potentially illegal - situation on Northern Rail's evening peak fares

Northern recently introduced new evening restrictions on the use of its off-peak fares where they are issued for journeys wholly within Greater Manchester and some other areas like West Yorkshire. They are no longer valid if the journey commences between 1601 to 1829 inclusive.

That in itself is disappointing, but was forced on them by the Department for Transport (DfT) to raise revenue. However other areas of Britain have had such restrictions for some years.

What is new is a twist to this restriction: if your journey starts before 1601 but you have to change trains after that time (and before 1830) then you need an Anytime (peak) ticket for the second leg of your journey.

This has never happened before. It’s true that some operators have blanket bars on using specific trains in the peak, for journeys where the tickets themselves are valid, but that is quite different. For example ScotRail bars use of any off-peak tickets between Glasgow and Edinburgh in either direction between 1643 and 1815 – but such details are clearly shown in the tickets’ restriction codes and hence appear on ticket machines. However what we have at Northern is that someone travelling, for example, from Bolton to Guide Bridge buys an OP Day Return for £4.20 that, according to the ticket restriction code, says it is valid until 1600 and from 1830. He then sets off at 1556 to Manchester Piccadilly where he connects into the 1631 to Guide Bridge – but is then told his ticket is no longer valid. His sin was to have changed en route because he has to. He now has to have an Anytime ticket for the last leg. Now where this falls down is that this detail is NOT shown in the ticket code but merely appears in small print on a few posters at Northern stations. That isn’t good enough – indeed I believe (supported by PassengerFocus) that if tested in the courts this would fail. In fact to do the journey from Bolton our customer has to leave 1512 to be sure of reaching Piccadilly in time. This cannot be right when the restriction code says you can set out up to 1600.

Discussions with the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the Office of the Rail Regulator found neither body was interested – and the DfT tried to maintain it was Northern’s choice, even though Northern admitted to me it was forced on them by the DfT. The civil servants at the DfT lack expertise and yet control the railway in a way no government department ever did in British Rail days.

But why am I so concerned? After all this only affects Northern doesn’t it? Well, yes – so far. But setting aside my belief that it would fail if tested in the courts, what if this were to spread?

Imagine setting out from Penzance at 1046 with a Super OP Return to Tonbridge only to find on arrival at Paddington (at 1622) you were now in the afternoon peak and your ticket was to be excessed for the final leg? Or using the 1206 from Paddington to Penzance, but finding that because you were going to Falmouth you had to upgrade to an Anytime ticket from Truro because the connection left at 1651! As for Thurso to Plymouth, try that on any train and you’ll find you have to change somewhere in someone’s afternoon peak!

Northern has been forced to make a dangerous precedent for the future of walk-on flexible rail travel in this country. Sadly it doesn’t understand this.

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