Cheaper, simpler, more flexible rail fairs are long overdue. But the latest review risks putting market ideology ahead of the interests of passengers.
The Office of Road and Rail (ORR), which regulates the economics and safety of the railways, has over the last year been undertaking a review of the ticketing market. The objective of the consultation, which closes today, is to make the ticketing more competitive, to improve performance and push down ticket prices.
There is a clear logic behind doing this. At the moment, the train operators have something of a monopoly on data about train times and ticket prices. If you want to have that data so you can sell tickets, you have to pay a lot of money to the train operators for the right to do so. As a consequence, not many so-called third party tickets sellers have broken into the market - the Train Line being the most well known.
But how much will opening this market up really benefit passengers? One of the most common complaints from train users is that they find ticketing confusing - the profusion of ticket types and restrictions can be baffling - so much so that train operators themselves have failed miserably to come up with a ticket machine that reliably offers you the cheapest price for your journey.
Won't creating a plethora of additional ticket sellers, each using their own approach, just make things worse? The argument goes that we'll get cheaper tickets by shopping around until we find the best deal, as is supposed to work with things like hotels or airlines. But rail is different from these sectors. We continue to regard trains as a public service - not just because of sepia memories of British Rail but because we subsidise it through our taxes to the tune of £4bn a year, and own the tracks and stations. As a consequence, when we use the railways we expect to be treated fairly - if two people buy a train ticket at the same time for the same journey but pay different prices that's unfair and one of them is being swindled. This damages trust and puts people off using the train.
Our railways are different from airlines in other ways, too. If you don't like an airline because of its prices, customer service or website, you can usually use another one. There is rarely such choice on the railways. If you want to travel from London to Norwich, you're catching a Greater Anglia train whether you like it or not, and the large majority of your ticket price goes toward the costs of running that train regardless of who you buy the ticket from.
The ORR's review is likely to demand reductions in the charges train operators make in return for access to fares data. Either the ORR or Department for Transport will then take a hands-on role in moderating the market that results. That seems fair and may generate some benefits at the margin, but its unlikely to mean significantly reduced ticket prices and the main gains will be for companies trying to get a slice of the ticket sales business.
So, how do you break the train operators control with action that actually benefits passengers?
First, action is needed to stop passengers being bamboozled by expansion in the number and variety of ticket sellers. There is a strong case for passengers having a legal right to be sold the cheapest ticket available for their journey. If they're not sold it, they should get their money back from the ticket seller.
Second, we need action to grow passenger numbers. Rather than obsessing about markets, the Government, regulators and operators to work on a single network-wide, multi-modal smart ticket that automatically gives you the best price for your journey. In London, Oyster clearly shows that this approach is simple, popular and increases the number of people using public transport and the number of journeys they take.
Changes to the way tickets are sold are long overdue, but it's vital the Government and regulators make passengers the first priority.