Page last updated at 18:55 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 19:55 UK

The train fare maze unravelled

Tom Symonds
BBC Transport Correspondent

Inspector checking tickets
Government policy is to gradually make fare-payers pay more.

If you don't know your Super Saver from your Value Advance, the railways can be a pretty intimidating place.

Settle yourself down on the right train with the wrong ticket and it is likely you'll end up facing the dreaded "full fare".

There are two reasons why Britain's rail fares have got more complicated.

The first is privatisation. Instead of just British Rail we now have more than a dozen train companies, each with its own marketing department and its own range of tickets.

The other reason is overcrowding. Whether you like private train travel or not, the private operators have got very good at attracting new passengers. Britain now has the highest level of rail travel since the 1940s.

Low cost airline techniques

It means rush-hour trains are full, and some services either side of the rush-hour, the so-called "shoulder periods", are also packed. The train companies use widely varying fares to steer passengers away from busy times, towards quiet times.

At its most extreme, train operators are using "yield management" techniques borrowed from the low-cost airlines which allow them to calculate at any moment in advance of a train leaving, what the price of its seats should be, dependent on how busy the service is.

Cheap deals and lower rail fares have in many cases resulted in high growth in use of the rail network and we have seen an enormous growth over the past 12 years.
David Mapp, Atoc

This is why South West Trains, with its Megatrains off-shoot, can charge just a pound, without going bust. The company is simply filling seats that would otherwise be empty.

The better the train companies get at balancing space and ticket prices, the more people use trains, the more overcrowded they get (because lack of investment is still an issue) and around we go again.

So why have they decided to simplify things? David Mapp of the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) says: " I think it's a matter of balance. It's clear that cheap deals and lower rail fares have in many cases resulted in high growth in use of the rail network and we have seen an enormous growth over the past 12 years.

Branding exercise

"But there has to be a balance. I think we've recognised now that we had got to the position where there were too many rail fares and we needed to have a simpler national structure."

This is actually a branding exercise. The fares are all still there; they are just called something different.

But what has changed is the standardisation of the terms and conditions that often confuse passengers. Now they can rely on Anytime tickets to be valid on any train, Off-Peak tickets to be guaranteed walk-up fares, and Advance tickets to require the traveller to identify the train they wish to use.

But behind the big announcement are some niggles that seasoned rail travellers will spot.

Advance fares non-refundable

Where, for example, is the Saver fare? This is a very popular, turn-up-on-the-day ticket that gives good-value off-peak travel. Most importantly, it is protected by the government. The train companies can't get rid of it.

Atoc says the name has gone, but the ticket's still there - as part of the Off-Peak family.

Then there's the tricky question of what passengers do if they buy an Advance ticket for a fixed train and their plans change. The new Advance fares will be all non-refundable.

Yet there are currently some advance-purchase tickets on East Midlands Trains,

Transpennine Express and First Great Western where passengers can get their money back. Not from next month, when the new tickets are introduced.

And three companies which charge 5 to change the travel times on a ticket will increase their prices to 10 - the standard price under the new system. Atoc insists most companies already charge a tenner.

The association says the changes bring passengers one benefit - they will be able to change their tickets right up to the time of travel, rather than just the night before.

But train companies will not be making rail travel cheaper. Government policy is to gradually make fare-payers pay more, so that taxpayers can pay less.

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