It is about time the fares paid by rail passengers were made fair.
Travellers must be able to select the time of their journey and the price of their ticket in full knowledge of all the options available. That this will now be possible with the release of the database of all alternative ticket prices is a welcome light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for passengers who until now have faced extreme difficulty in tracking down the cheapest fares.
Some journeys are up to two-thirds cheaper by buying split tickets to stations between the starting point and destination but potential travellers have been unable to discover this without hours of research or a particularly helpful ticket clerk. Now the Alice-in-Wonderland world of British train fares is to be opened up, there will be a way round the serious anomalies that continue despite the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) promising a simplified price structure five years ago. Instead of paying £108.70 to travel from Glasgow to Sheffield, for example, passengers will know they can do so for only £62 by buying a ticket to Chorley and another from Chorley to Sheffield.
Such ridiculous anomalies are the result of 19 different companies operating services across the UK. It is true the division between operating companies and the network infrastructure makes a financial strategy for rail services in the UK particularly complex. Nevertheless, even in Scotland, where ScotRail is the only operator on non-cross-Border routes, anomalies exist, albeit to a lesser extent. Why should it be cheaper to buy three separate tickets to travel from Glasgow to Dundee than to buy a single ticket for the whole journey?
Transparency has been conspicuously lacking since the railways were privatised in the 1990s. But the actual mixture of commercial and state interests has produced an impossibly opaque fares structure. While the UK Government regulates season tickets and off-peak fares (and Holyrood oversees those on routes within Scotland) the operating companies are free to set other fares, leading to a multiplicity of different tariffs. These have also contributed to the high cost of train travel, with the fares for some UK journeys almost 10 times as much as their equivalent in European countries.
It is extraordinary that, despite the high costs and the complex system of fares, journey numbers have continued to increase. With even the regulated fares now rising above inflation, passengers deserve a better deal. The release of full information is long overdue and it is to be hoped that companies providing price comparison websites and mobile apps will seize the opportunity to offer a service that will allow many travellers to make considerable savings. Fares anomalies may have crept in by default but keeping passengers in the dark for so long without taking action came inexcusably close to deception. It must not happen again. Clarity and transparency about basic infrastructure must be recognised as a right.
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