Thursday, 9 August 2007

Tickets and Fares

My last post on fares got quite a buzz going and JP asked the question about why combination tickets can often be cheaper than a straight-through fare and why staff do not make this known to customers. So I will try and answer these questions here today.

Firstly, we need to set a background. The UK rail network fare structure, at its core, is infinitely complex. It's even more complex than the issue of actually running the trains. I got my start in the railway industry working for a certain organisation now residing somewhere in Bangalore. As we dealt with the entire country rather than just FGW, I got to know a lot about the UK fares structure. At one point during my tenure, it was estimated that, when you took into account AP fares, promotional tickets and each TOCs particular quirks, there were somewhere in the region of 10,000 distinct ticket types. I don't know how true this is and I'm not sure I want to, but it gives you an idea of how a big a scale we're dealing with. The idea is to not pass on too much of this complexity to the customer, but behind the scenes, it's a different story.

What we also have to take into account is that rail fares are not just priced on distance. If they were, things would be much easier. Routes are also priced on usage. A ticket from point A to Paddington will cost you more than a ticket from point A to point B in the opposite direction, even though you are travelling the same distance. This is especially true of peak fares.

(Partly, this is due to the function of fares as a capacity control. You offer cheap tickets off-peak to encourage those who can travel off-peak to do so. But as an extra guarentee, on routes where you have a lot of commuters and really need the peak time space, you make peak time fares such that it really is worth travelling off-peak if you can possibly help it.)

Anyway, it is this usage pricing which creates the fares anomolies. To use JP's example: Bath to Paddington is a well travelled route, hence fares are expensive. Bath to Didcot is a less well travelled route. Even though the train ultimately may end up in Paddington, those of you travelling to Didcot will be off the train before Reading. Didcot to London is a well travelled route also, but a ticket from Didcot to Paddington takes advantage of the distance factor. It's closer so it's cheaper. If you are willing to do the research, you can get good deals with combo tickets, finding the best mid point so that you can take advantage of usage and distance pricing.

Staff do not tell you about combo tickets partly because they don't have to. They have to sell you a ticket and if you ask for a ticket from Bath to Paddington, you'll get the straight-through fare. The other reason is that it takes time to work out these combo tickets. I have seen a staff member report someone standing at a booking office for 30 minutes asking another staff member for every possible combination of tickets so that he could pick the cheapest. An extreme situation no doubt but imagine if this was peak time and you were in the queue behind him. If you ask staff about combo tickets, they will help you but there is a time and a place.

The fares structure in terms of the number of tickets available to purchase can be confusing, espcially when you get to AP ticketing. Back in the good old days there were two main AP tickets, Apex and Super Advance. Individual TOCs had their own systems like Virgin's Value Advance range but FGW stuck to the big two.

Until recently.

Recently came the advent of the Leisure Advance and Business Advance tickets. These were intended to provide a ticketing style similar to airlines. Single journeys only, on a first-come-first-served basis. This was intended to reward customers for early booking (we like early booking, it helps us with usage figures) as well as allowing them to mix and match tickets for their specific journey (peak one way and off-peak the other rather than a peak return ticket even though only one leg was peak, first and standard etc).

Leisure Advance were the off-peak tickets and Business Advance were peak. Not many Business Advance tickets were offered on peak trains as we try and encourage off-peak travel where possible with AP tickets. Each had three bands, A, B and C. C is the cheapest, A the most expensive. As the fare became more expensive, more of them were offered. The impetus being, if you want a really cheap fare you better book damn early. Of course, if you did book damn early, you better not change your mind, because none of the Leisure Advance tickets are refundable (although Business Advance are, and contrary to what anyone may tell you, this is not against the Sale of Goods Act nor does it breach your statutory rights, or any other nonsense).

This was a good system really, and not that complicated once you read around it a bit. However, from May this year, things went a little crazy and each ticket type was increased to 5 bands. Now it's complicated. Unbelievably cheap if you get the bottom band ticket, but complicated.

Sometimes it just makes you want to give up and buy a Saver.

Of course, the restrictions are simple: they're valid on one train, don't miss it. Not so when it comes to walk on ticket restrictions as I believe JP mentioned. There is a lovely little book called the National Fares Manual or NFM. I don't know how many of you have seen this book, or know about it, but here is a picture of one with my hand for scale, taken at my old office at 2130 when I was working (very) late and bored.

This manual contains a list of every fare within the region as well as every restriction for every ticket. As you can see, this one just covers the West region. There are 7 of these to cover the country. It's produced by ATOC and approximately 1/3 of that book is restrictions that determine what ticket type you can by and when, for every journey across the FGW network. It's all available on computer now and it makes me sad in a way as so few people I see nowadays know how to use one properly.

Anyway, enough of nostalgia. As you can see, with this many restrictions, it's no wonder that customers find the fare system complicated and even the staff get confused. It really does take a long time to get to grips with. This is why, JP, you find that your fares vary so dramatically, there are an awful lot of different restrictions.

FGW are in fact, only partly to blame for this as it is ATOC who set the majority of the restrictions. They are independant of TOCS so can apparently be relied upon to be fair to everybody. It is, however, FGW who set the price for the diffent bands so you can still blame them for fares being too high. Since fares seem to be a hot topic at present, I will next present my piece on what goes into deciding your fare or, to put it another way, what exactly are you paying for.

Apologies that this was a bit long and rambling. I may not have been entirely clear in places. If anybody wants to know anything further, as always, I'm open to questions.



JP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JP said...

Many thanks indeed, Insider (and thank you also to those who expressed their thoughts on my earlier comment below).

It made very interesting and informative reading, and it's always good when someone takes the time to explain things properly rather than making excuses.

I'm still a little unhappy with the system though. The argument about higher priced peak fares makes sense, but then there's only a small fine line before pricing is used to combat over-crowding rather than other methods of enhancing capacity. Keeping the railways for those who can afford it; not something I'd vote for...

Similarly I can see the logic to pricing some routes and stations higher than others, but I do think that the effect is sometimes completely disproportionate. On that note I have a gripe about engineering works (FGW didn't see the problem when my disabled friend was once charged more to go via Reading rather than catch a bus between Didcot and Swindon, which would have been difficult for him) but maybe I should expand on that another time.

I think that it's clear that the fare structure is largely not down to FGW but I wonder what your thoughts would be if it was completely re-structured. For example if fares were done per mile (perhaps at a cheaper rate for long distance services and at a higher rate for busy routes) and then there were small surcharges for each major interchange passed through. This would surely make it a lot easier - certainly from the PoV of comparing a journey with the car - and the time needed to trawl through websites or sit with an advisor would surely be reduced.

I guess that there would be winners and losers, and it would be impossible to simplify it to the extreme without making some routes unfeasible or prohibitively expensive.

Anonymous said...

One thing to bear in mind when using combination tickets is that the train needs to stop at the station where you switch from one ticket to another. So whilst you can cheapen a London-Bath journey by rebooking at Didcot you are cutting down on the number of services available for you to validly travel on because only some of the trains from Bath stop at Didcot (although you could of course change at Swindon to a train from Wales that stops at Didcot). I tend to rebook at Swindon even though the savings are lower because all of the Bath trains stop there and I am on expenses anyway. If I travel from London to Bath on a London-Swindon and a Swindon-Bath ticket and find that the late night train on which I want to travel is diverted because of engineering works and runs non-stop between Reading and Bath, is my ticket combination still valid? My train doesn't stop at Swindon, but the main timetable booklet says that it is timetabled to stop at Swindon (although the replacement timetable book shows that it is not)

In my experience, the booking office staff at Bath are very reluctant to sell combination tickets if they realise that you are doing it merely to save money. I have been refused rebooking at Swindon for a London journey despite showing the booking clerk the National Conditions of Carriage that clearly state that what I was proposing was legal on the grounds that getting a cheaper deal would be "tantamount to fare evasion" (I complained about this and got compensation and an appology from FGW customer services).

On the other hand when I wanted to travel from Bath to London (a journey for which tickets are valid via Westbury), London to Totnes then Totnes to Bath, I was sold a Bath-London Open return and a Bath- Totnes saver return and told that I would use my London to Bath and Bath to Totnes tickets in combination to travel from London to Totnes on a train that travelled though Westbury but which did not stop at Westbury. To my understanding this journey was illegal and I could have been treated as a ticketless travellers but I was assured that it would be OK. I made the clerk book me a seat on the London Totnes train so that I had some kind of evidence to support my assertion that I has been told that it was OK to travel and I didn't have any problem with the train manager although I don't think he realised what I was doing as my ticket was checked near Reading and then near Exeter and I only showed one of my tickets each time (I suspect that this was technically illegal because the Conditions of Carriage state that you must present ticket (s) for your jounrey on request which I interpret as meaing tickets for your whole journey.


Anonymous said...

Just a quick question.

When you say that booking hall staff are legally obliged to sell you a ticket combination if (and only if) you ask for it can they refuse to sell you the tickets from teh "tickets for today" window and make you wait in the line in teh "travel centre"? What is FGW's policy on this?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said "the train needs to stop at the station where you switch from one ticket to another".

This is not quite true, it is only one of the possibilities. See the Conditions Of Carriage

19. Using a combination of tickets
You may use two or more tickets for one journey as long as together they cover
the entire journey and one of the following applies:
(a) they are both Zonal Tickets (unless special conditions prohibit their use);
(b) the train you are in calls at the station where you change from one ticket to
another; or
(c) one of the tickets is a Season Ticket (which for this purpose does not include Season
Tickets or travel passes issued on behalf of a passenger transport executive or
local authority) or a leisure travel pass, and the other ticket(s) is/are not.

I'm not sure all of the definitions, i.e. zonal tickets, passenger transport exective, leisure travel pass, but it is clear that if you have a season tickrt, the changeover station does not need to be stopped at.

Anonymous said...

drop leisure pass off my list of unknown definitions (and add BritRail passes - though I can probably guess), I have just noticed it goes on to say -

For the purposes of this Condition, a “leisure travel pass” means any multi-journey
ticket (excluding Season Tickets) valid for:
(i) at least 7 consecutive days; or
(ii) at least 3 days in a period of at least 7 consecutive days
and includes rover tickets, travel passes, flexipass tickets and BritRail passes.

Anonymous said...

> Of course, the restrictions are simple: they're valid on one train, don't miss it.

But then there are the cases when you miss it because another train was late or cancelled. Ticket offices seem very unclear on this.

Anonymous said...

heres a letter I wrote:

On the 1st October 2007 I had planned to get the 06:37 train from Slough to Swindon (changing at Reading) and then the 07:40 from Swindon to Newport Gwent (same train as from Reading but due to your baffling ticketing policy purchasing in this manner is cheaper than an advanced ticket straight through!)

I had purchased these tickets accordingly and been issued them on the 28th September at the Newport station fast ticket machine, having booked them on the 25th or 26th via the internet, as I have done on frequent occasions over the past year.

Due to a change in circumstances I decided to get the train direct from Reading at 07:11 and continue my journey as planned to Newport and had a lift to Reading station to these means. However there was some traffic congestion and therefore I left myself 5 minutes to get from the concourse entrance to platform 4 at Reading. This should take approximately 1 minute.

I tried to swipe my ticket through the barriers but the barrier wouldn’t open using my Slough to Swindon ticket, hence I had to seek assistance which added a little more time.

I approached the platform and the train was there. The time was 07:10. I tried to get on the train using the nearest carriage but was told in no uncertain terms that I was too late (which is fairly ironic considering the lack of punctuality prevalent in your services.) I wasn’t late though as the train is timetabled to leave at 07:11.

So, slightly infuriated, I waited to get the next relevant service; the 07:41 from Reading to Cardiff Central. Little did I know that the ticket barrier at Reading and the train leaving earlier than advertised would leave me considerably angrier and impecunious.

I boarded the 07:41 train. The guard appeared as “the bullet train” ambled its way to my destination and I proceeded to give him my ticket.
He asked to see the other part of the ticket. I showed it to him. I was then told my ticket was invalid as it was a leisure advance ticket. And I would have to pay the full fare from Reading to Swindon.
As I’m an honest person I informed him that I was actually traveling to Newport. He asked to see my ticket from Swindon to Newport. THIS WAS ALSO INVALID (“Computer says “Nooooooooo!”) I was then informed the price, £54. I rang your customer service desk at the time to verify whether this was actually happening.
“COMPUTER SAYS Nooooooooooo!”

I was then told I couldn’t claim a refund on the tickets I’d purchased for the original journey either. Even though I had missed the train because of YOUR rubbish ticket barriers and YOUR insistence that I couldn't get on the train even though there was still a minute to go before it was scheduled to leave. So, and pardon my French, the F-ING TRAIN JOURNEY HAS COST ME £76. I could have flown to Paris/ Amsterdam/ wherever for that price. But instead I have paid this amount for a train from the cultural hotspot of Reading to the beautiful metropolis of Newport. Seventy six bleeding quid!?!?

What compounds this complete farcical rip off is that, as previously stated, I regularly use this service. Normally on a Friday I get the train from Newport to either Reading or Slough (17:09 from Newport) and on the Monday from either Slough or Reading to Newport, usually the 07:11 from Reading as it is considerably cheaper. Check my account.

To get from my place of work to Newport train station on a Friday I normally get a bus. I’m one of these conscientious people who care about the environment and to that end try and use public transport as much as possible….

I usually leave work at 15:55. The bus is timetabled to appear at 16:03. The total journey to the train station should take half an hour according to the Travelline Cymru website. Unfortunately the traffic is sometimes very heavy and occasionally I have missed the 17:09 train. (Even though I am giving myself 30 minutes grace in such an event) Therefore I board the next suitable train. And not one member of your staff in that time has challenged the validity of my 17:09 ticket, NOT ONE!!! In fact none of them have actually checked the second part of the ticket. Not until last Monday.

Indeed on one occasion I was trying to get the 17:09 and due to my cash card being damaged I had to go into the Customer Service office at Newport station and ask for my tickets through them FOR THE SERVICE I HAD JUST MISSED.
The employee was extremely courteous and helpful and AT NO TIME DID HE TELL ME I WOULD HAVE TO GET A NEW TICKET FOR MY JOURNEY. He proceeded to issue me the tickets for the 17:09 train

I have also on occasion missed the 07:11 train from Reading and thus had to get a later one. Again I have never encountered a problem with possessing an advance ticket (ie “invalid”) for the preceding service.

Also, on the occasion where I have ended up paying £76 in total, at Newport train station when going through the ticket barrier I used my so-called invalid ticket for the barrier machine. And guess what? Yes I was able to go through the barrier with the INVALID TICKET.

I enclose my remaining tickets for my claim for a refund for the £54 I was forced to pay. I would like to inform you that on the corresponding service a week later (the 07:11 from Reading to Newport on Mon 8th Oct) that the guard didn’t check the second part of my ticket. And the train left Reading at 07:15.
If this had occurred a week prior I wouldn’t have had to pay an extra £54.

Indeed if I was permitted to board the train on Oct 1st which was leaving at 07:11 as timetabled I wouldn’t have had to pay an extra £54. Or if your barriers at Reading were dependable I wouldn’t have “missed” my train.

Also the service I caught from Cardiff Central to Slough on Fri 5th October at 15:55 the guard didn’t check the second part of my ticket; I informed you about via the telephone to register my distaste. (Even though the first part of the leisure advance tickets does not actually give an indication of what train one should be traveling on.)

The glaring inconsistencies in your company and employee’s approach beggars belief and has cost me over £50.

A cursory internet search reveals the utter hatred that many people have for your company, its service and even the “conditions of carriage.” I’m glad I’m not the only one thoroughly peeved off with your “business” sorry, profiteering racket.

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