At last. Some good news on the railway: literally overnight hundreds of rail fares have almost halved.
On Saturday evening an off-peak single ticket from York to London cost £130. On Sunday morning it will be £68. From Berwick to Peterborough, the fare falls from £139 to £73.
From now onwards, return off-peak train fares have been scrapped in favour of simplified “single-leg” pricing.
But before train travellers get too excited, this applies only to London North Eastern Railway (LNER) on the East Coast main line.
How will removing some of the anomalies in the fares system affect your journey plans? These are the key questions and answers.
What’s the problem with train fares?
Many people feel they are too high, and this move should address some of those concerns. More broadly, the rail industry (now almost completely controlled by the government once again), is hobbled with an anachronous fares system.
It was devised in the 20th century by British Rail for entirely different times and without the concept of online booking.
Rules have been “baked in” since privatisation that typically make an off-peak single ticket almost the same as a return.
Off-peak tickets are much more flexible than advance tickets, since they can be used on a wide range of trains and allow breaks in journeys – subject only to rules on timing, avoiding rush hours.
But one-way off-peak fares can be punitive.
Between Durham and London, for example, until today the off-peak single cost £163, with a return priced at only £1 more. It is now £83, a saving of 49 per cent.
This disparity was a deterrent to people who wanted to make journeys on a one-way basis (eg Durham to London by train, back by coach) or put together “circular” journeys such as Durham-London-Manchester-Durham.
What is now happening on LNER?
There are just three kinds of tickets:
- Anytime singles, which can be used on any train and are generally extremely expensive (eg £68 for a 45-minute trip from London to Peterborough).
- Super off-peak/Off-peak singles, which is what this measure is largely about (the difference between super and normal off-peak is usually just an issue of the times allowed). This is the category which has changed overnight.
- Advance singles, which as always are for specific trains and sold more cheaply than off-peak tickets.
That one-way Durham to London super off-peak ticket has fallen by £80 to £83.
Has single-leg pricing been trialled?
Yes, in a very limited way on the East Coast main line. An experimental scheme with LNER between London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh has seen “single-leg” pricing on off-peak tickets for the past three years.
The move proved extremely popular – and, inadvertently, created even more anomalies. From Durham to London, for example, a one-way traveller until today would rationally buy a Newcastle-London ticket for £79 even though it is for a further distance; this saves £75 on the trip.
Now, the idea is to make single-leg pricing the norm across the LNER network.
For the train operator, there is a revenue protection aspect too: preventing the repeated use of open return tickets that are not checked. Because all tickets are sold for travel on a specific day, the risk of this particular kind of ticket fraud is eliminated.
Will fares go up or down?
Mostly down, with single fares almost halved – to exactly half the current return fare. People who routinely make return journeys should notice no difference (except for the annual fare increase, this year 5.9 per cent).
The move is hoped to be “revenue-neutral,” ie the total raised from travellers remains the same – or “revenue-positive” if, as hoped, more people are attracted to the railway.
Any other drawbacks?
Yes: when competition with other operators (rail or air) is significant, single-leg pricing.
One example is Edinburgh-London, on which LNER competes with Avanti West Coast and Lumo trains as well as British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair flights.
For commercial reasons, LNER might want to offer a special flexible low-cost one-way ticket valid only on lightly used trains. But that could start to create anomalies all over again if the Edinburgh-London fare is less than (say) Berwick-London. LNER might simply price advance tickets more aggressively to compete in such circumstances.
Elsewhere, “open-access” operators could tweak their flexible fares to undercut the state-run competition.
Does this signal the beginning of a rail-fare revolution?
Not yet. Mark Smith, the international rail guru known as The Man in Seat 61, and a former British Rail manager, says of the initiative: “The only drawback as far as I can see is that this only will only apply to LNER at this stage. Single-leg pricing is definitely the way forward – it should be part of a complete reform of rail fares which should apply across the network.
“It removes the current penalty for circular or open-jaw journeys, and makes it far easier to display ticket choices for an outward and a return trip on self-service channels such as website and ticket machines. I hope that its success on LNER will lead to its adoption nationwide.”
But every government for decades has stepped back from the reform that is necessary. For the change to take place nationwide, there is a vast amount of technical work to be done – as well as political persuasion in cases where particular towns or cities face increased fares.
There could be some circumstances where fares go up as a result of removing anomalies. For example, travellers between London and Bristol have long used the “Didcot Dodge” – splitting tickets at Didcot Parkway to save almost half of the full journey fare. Removing this anomaly could mean some passengers paying more.