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.
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.