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We've listened. It's time to respond with what our customers want.

While almost every part of our economy and every business is being transformed by technology, for many rail travellers, the orange magstripe ticket is still an all too familiar sight.

It is no secret to those of us who work on Britain’s railways that an overhaul in how fares are set and sold is needed. Our customers are no-longer getting the experience they expect. We want that to change.

But bringing a labyrinthine system calcified in regulation written in the 90s up to date is far from easy. A balance must be found between the competing priorities of those who use the railway. That’s why last summer, we worked with the passenger watchdog Transport Focus to carry out the biggest ever listening exercise on rail fares. Of the almost 20,000 people who took part, including customers, businesses and passenger groups, over 8 in 10 said they wanted to see the system reformed.

There were many reasons people wanted change. People buying a weekly Season Ticket felt that too often they had to gaze into their crystal ball to see on how many days and at what times they would travel, often impossible to do. In a world where part time working and self-employment have increased by a third in two decades, the fares system has not kept up, with customers sometimes under using their tickets or having no opportunity to save money travelling Off-Peak. 

In longer distance markets, inflexibility of tickets was an issue, with customers finding themselves cutting activities short in order to catch the ‘right’ train, or else watching the clock until a certain type of ticket becomes valid. People are held at ticket barriers, waiting for the clock to strike the magic hour. 

And naturally, everyone wants to know they are paying the best price for the fare that meets their needs. A simple ask, but current regulations – well intentioned when written – mean that now too many of the 55million fares in the system overlap and contradict one another, giving rise to thousands of anomalies people are expected to navigate. It serves as a classic case of unintended consequences. 

Fares which meet modern working patterns, flexibility if plans change, the best available price for the service received. Fares that mean technology like smartphones and online accounts can be harnessed to make paying for travel easier. These reasonable desires are not adequately reflected in the current system of tickets and fares. But we have a way through.

Achieving what people want means starting afresh, moving away from a system of fixed packages of pre-prescribed fares to one where a single journey on one train serves as the basic building block.  It’s like moving from Spaghetti Junction to a Manhattan-style grid system – logical and easy to navigate.   

This re-structure could enable the whole country to benefit from a pay-as-you-go, ‘tap-in tap-out’ system underpinned by seven-day price caps currently only experienced in London, which operates under different rules to the rest of the country. This would give commuters greater freedom to mix and match their tickets and potentially save money for people working fewer than five days or travelling off-peak. 

At the same time, inter-city travellers would see a far bigger range of cheaper walk-up fares and potential reductions in their peak time-time travel, better spreading demand and reducing overcrowding by up to a third on some of the busiest services. The changes would also banish confusing contradictory fares, so people would no longer have to find work-arounds to get the best deal.

All of these benefits and more are set out in the rail industry’s ‘Easier Fares for All’ proposals, which enshrines our new proposition in a simple core premise: Customers should only pay for the travel they need and always get the best value fare where and when they buy it. 

But train companies alone cannot rebuild the system. 

We want to work with government to update the regulations underpinning the system, so that we can make improvements for the millions of people who travel by rail every day. Change is necessary however the system is organised and while our proposals represent a first submission to Keith Williams’ wider rail review, the journey towards a better fares system can start now.

With the right political support we‘re optimistic the benefits could be rolled out across the network over the next 3-5 years. We’ve listened. It’s time to deliver what our customers want.

Paul Plummer, Chief Executive, Rail Delivery Group


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