Rail watchdog calls for better pricing structure
Reporter: by ALAN SALTER
Date online: 19 February 2009
GREATER Manchester’s rail commuters pay more for their season tickets than anywhere else in the country outside London.
And so complicated are Britain’s train fares that rail travel between Greater Manchester and London can be the most expensive — but also the cheapest — in Europe.
Research by rail watchdog Passenger Focus found that with a ticket at the cheapest possible “buy in advance, one train only” price, long-distance travel to London can be cheaper than Europeans pay to travel to Paris, Hamburg, Milan, Amsterdam, Madrid, Stockholm and Zurich.
In contrast, travelling at short notice or needing flexibility about the train you catch can be hugely expensive.
The watchdog was asked last year by Bolton South MP Ruth Kelly — when she was Transport Secretary — to investigate why passengers who were generally satisfied with their rail services still said they were poor value for money.
After nine months of investigations, Guy Dangerfield, who led the research, said: “Satisfaction is inexorably linked with price but passengers say that quality of service matters too.
“The key issues for them are punctuality and reliability, getting a seat and information when things go wrong.”
The study found that the fares structure is too complex, that it must be seen to be fairer to passengers, and that the price of flexibility in travel plans is too high. It cites the example of Virgin’s new high-frequency timetable between Manchester and London.
The report states: “It is odd that we have what amounts to a bus service frequency on many long distance routes in Britain (for example, three trains per hour from London to Birmingham and London to Manchester).
“But the price of taking advantage of there being ‘another one along in a minute’ is so high.”
Although only a quarter of passengers pay the top price London second class return of £247 by buying their tickets on the day, only 10 per cent manage to get the cheapest £26 return by booking in advance.
London has three times the number of short-distance commuter trains than anywhere else in the country.
Greater Manchester shares second place with the West Midlands and Scotland.
It is outstripped by London, the West Midlands, and Wales for medium distance commuting but shares second place with Scotland for long-distance train frequency.
The watchdog’s chairman Colin Foxall said: “Ultimately, a fundamental review of the long-distance fare structure is needed to improve understanding and address the issues of fairness and the high price of flexibility.
“However, there are things that the rail industry can do in the short-term, including making the cheapest ‘buy on the day’ return price more transparent and taking into account what passengers have paid already if they miss the train on which they were booked.”
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