James MacColl: Rail fares rise sends signal of confusion to passengers

EVENING off-peak rail fares on routes into many northern cities like Leeds have been axed this week, leaving the thousands of part-time workers who need to commute in the evening paying more, some over double their previous fare.

Northern Rail took this action at the behest of the Government, which picked this option in the aim of raising revenue. To anyone under any financial pressure however – and the Office of National Statistics reports that the average hourly wage for part-time workers is only 63 per cent of that for full-time workers – this will feel like a sudden, unaccountable change with no clear benefits. Where will the money go? Where are the cheapest tickets now?

It’s part of a complex landscape of rail fares that, despite lamentations from everyone who travels by train, is getting more impenetrable rather than less.

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How to find the cheapest fare for your journey can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Rail Minister Claire Perry hopes that people will plan in advance instead of buying tickets for travel on the day. But it’s a lot less straightforward than that, even if you can predict your exact travel needs well in advance.

Added to the sheer variety of ticket types out there is a lack of clarity on how to get them: how many of each type is available and when they come on sale.

It’s great that there are mega-cheap Super Advance Off Peak tickets, but they are not always possible to get hold of when you need to arrange your journey. Indeed, it can be the case that you are not seeing the whole picture when you go to buy a ticket. Those in the know can exploit the ability to access cheaper fares by splitting their journey up into separate sections.

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For everyone else, it can feel unfair that your single ticket covering your journey from start to destination might be more expensive.

The fact is that almost no one has the whole picture. If the information on rail services in the Routing Guide, a huge compendium of railway and ticketing knowledge, were readily accessible in the public domain, this would allow companies and individuals to develop innovative applications that give passengers clear, up to date fares and route maps, and enable the rest of us to choose our tickets confident that we’re getting the best deal.

While there are many different companies running the rail network itself, and many different ticket sellers, there needs to be a level playing field created by open data where passengers can see right across the network and spot the best value journeys easily.

The Routing Guide is currently only available in printed form. You can imagine how manageable this massive set of data is while it only exists on paper. It might as well be locked in a bank vault as far as the small, swift start-ups who might revolutionise fares information are concerned. Passengers deserve better. Until access to fares data is opened up, all of us who use the rail network, or would like to, can’t be confident that we’ll be able to get the best deal for our fares.

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This is why so many people are supporting Campaign for Better Transport’s Fair Fares Now Charter, which calls for cheaper, simpler and fairer fares.

The Government must work with and support ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) and Network Rail to make ticket pricing transparent, with the cheapest ticket available always clearly indicated.

Smart ticketing, which works well in London, is needed in other regions too.

For the millions of part-time workers desperate for a flexible ticketing system that allows them to get the same kinds of discounts available to full-time workers, but who are instead being hit by new peak time fares in the north of England, fairer fares can’t come soon enough.

James MacColl is Head of Campaigns at the Campaign for Better Transport.