Ensuring a fares and ticketing revolution

By John Backway, Head of CBO, Rail Delivery Group

I was pleased to attend yesterday’s Transport Ticketing 2022 conference, the world’s largest smart ticketing and mobility event in London, where I was joined by some of the industry’s most influential bodies to discuss what is the lifeblood of the success of our industry – our fares system. 

As Britain recovers post-Covid, the importance of getting people back to travelling by train has never been more apparent - not for the benefit of the rail industry itself but for various other sectors of the economy, for different parts of the country and for the environment. With new working patterns now here to stay post-Covid, it is impossible to predict exactly how things will play out. But as we move into the summer months, we have recovered to around 81% of pre-pandemic numbers.

To reinforce that recovery, it is vital that the industry continues to adapt to the new post-Covid world, so that we can offer a fair deal for customers, making it simpler for them to get the best prices when using the network. Rail reform, and in particular fares reform, will be key to making this a reality.

Even before the pandemic, the reform and modernisation of rail fares and ticketing had become a priority, as outdated regulations prevented the industry offering customers what they wanted, needed, or expected too much of the time. The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail published last year rightly called for a customer-focused retail revolution, acknowledging the need to reduce “the unnecessary cost and complexity of today’s … paper-based ticket selling process”.

The paper points in the right direction on fares reform and the new Flexi Season tickets launched last summer, which offer flexible workers a discount on their previous monthly ticket, were a great start to realising this retail revolution. We also welcomed the announcement from government of £360 million to upgrade PAYG ticketing and retail systems to passengers outside of London, as part of the Autumn Budget.

While these announcements are good news for our industry, we must ensure that we get the detail of reform right and continue to adapt to keep pace with our competitors, in what is now a rapidly changing transport landscape. This means continuing to work with government to reduce the complexity of fares and to make the process a more seamless experience for customers. And the benefits of some of this work can already be seen across our network – the private sector’s introduction of the digital barcode (QR) ticket for example, removed the need for a physical paper ticket and replaced it with instant fulfilment of rail purchases to customers’ mobile and email accounts.

Likewise, the widespread availability of smartcard ticketing across the National Rail network, making it easier and quicker for commuters to load season tickets and be automatically notified to claim Delay Repay compensation, is another example of where improvements to the customer experience are being made. And as we look to the government’s wider PAYG aspirations set out in the Autumn budget, account-based pay-as-you-go ticketing has already been rolled out by private rail operators GTR and SWR using this smartcard infrastructure, to ensure we lay the right foundations now to deliver for the customer.

To ‘build back better’, the industry can’t rest on its laurels. We must not only foster a ‘customer obsessed’ culture that encourages people to choose rail, but we must also get the right reforms in place so that the railway has the right foundations for the long-term. Key to this is simplifying fares, to deliver a simpler, responsive fares structure that is adaptable to future requirements, and crucially, better for our customers and the taxpayer.


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