David Behrens: Rail industry still moving at pace of its analogue era origins over issues like split-ticketing

Split tickets could soon become a thing of the past.
Split tickets could soon become a thing of the past.
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HAD it somehow been possible to buy tickets separately for the first and second halves of a football match at a fraction of the usual cost, it would be reasonable to expect the League to leap into action in less time than it takes Leeds United to change managers.

Yet it is exactly the sort of thing that has been going on for years on the railways, and it has taken until now for the industry to even begin to address it.

Leeds train station. Picture: SWNS

Leeds train station. Picture: SWNS

Split-ticketing is the practice of paying a different fare for each leg of a journey, especially where more than one train is involved. Using this method, it is said to be possible to save £78 on a journey from Leeds to Birmingham, if you are prepared to on a circuitous route. Even if you are not, you can get from Doncaster to Southampton for £20 instead of £50 by splitting the ticket in London.

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You can also play the system to get to the suburbs more cheaply. A journey from Liverpool to south Manchester costs substantially less if you change trains twice in the city centre – as my son did the other week, although he missed his stop and was halfway to Huddersfield before he noticed.

In football or the theatre, this sort of thing would be considered ticket touting and would attract the attention of the law. On the railways, though, split-ticket websites are a legitimate industry. They have gained traction because the regular tickets are such appalling value for money.

Such sites have become the first recourse for young people who have grown used to paying at shops, bars and even on buses with their contactless cards and who wouldn’t even consider going anywhere by train if they had to pay full price.

And it’s not the only problem with the fares. Everyone who buys a ticket is made to walk a tightrope of off-peak and advance tariffs with conditions as clear as a station announcement spoken into a sock full of treacle – not to mention single tickets that somehow cost only £1 less than a return.

This week, the Rail Delivery Group, the industry body owned by the train companies and Network Rail, finally woke up to the issue by accepting that something had to change. But it did not seem to know what.

Its announcement was littered with more get-out clauses than the tickets themselves. Some fares would go up, not down, it said, as tickets were “standardised”.

Its boss, Paul Plummer, a former “group strategy director” at the directionless Network Rail, said it would not be simple to reconfigure “a decades-old system originally designed in an analogue era”. He then proceeded to do what the rail industry does best, which is to pass the buck – in this case to the Government, which, he said, must “pull the levers of change”.

Unwittingly, he got to the heart of the problem, which is that he is running an industry that is demonstrably incapable of moving at the same speed as everyone else. The analogue system to which he refers is the equivalent of cheque books, or the price stickers they used to put on the tins in Morrisons before they had computers on the tills.

The extent to which the current system it is coming apart was illustrated perfectly on Wednesday when passengers arrived at their stations to discover they could not collect tickets they had bought in advance because the machines were not communicating with each other.

“People affected should speak to their train company,” said someone at Mr Plummer’s organisation, taking a cue from him on effective buck passing.

Despite this week’s stirrings, the industry remains in denial. It addressed its skeleton in the ticket cupboard only because it had to respond to the independent rail review commissioned by the Government in the aftermath of last year’s timetable fiasco – the effects of which have still not been fully remedied.

At the heart of what the Rail Delivery Group said was that split-ticketing would no longer be necessary because we would in future be automatically offered the lowest price for our journey.

The tacit acknowledgement that we are currently being overcharged is the real scandal here. It is not the split-ticketing websites that are the touts but the railway companies themselves.

If they are to be knocked into line, the Government’s review may have to take another leaf from Morrisons’ book – not price stickers this time but the guarantee of your money back if you can buy cheaper elsewhere.