How getting the low-down on rail fares might make passengers worse off

Busting the myths of free data.

The Association for Train Operating Companies (ATOC) has for the first time made its database of rail fares available to website and mobile app developers for free as part of a governmental push for data transparency. But will this unprecedented openness offer customers a better deal and simplify ticket-buying, or merely close loopholes that currently present cheaper fares?

Rail fares in the UK are the most expensive in Europe, and the ticketing system one of the most complex. This has made buying the best value train tickets an arcane art of juggling different journey times, ticket types, routes and purchasing dates, which can lead to unsuspecting passengers falling foul of restrictions and subject to penalty fares.

David Sidebottom, director of independent passenger watchdog Passenger Focus, says: “Value for money has become the Achilles’ heel of the rail industry, with less than half of passengers in our most recent survey saying that their ticket was good value. Some passengers tell us that they can find the fares system complicated and illogical.”

One such passenger is professional opera singer Kirstin Sharpin, who travels extensively for work and books train tickets up to five or six times a month depending on where she is working, but still struggles with current online booking systems.

“Apart from one extraordinary experience where a last-minute First Class London-Glasgow ticket was cheaper than the same journey in Standard, rail fares are a thing of mystery and confusion, as well as a thorough embarrassment for this country, when tourists are charged huge penalty fares for innocent mistakes,” she says.

Despite the fanfare around the press release making it sound like passengers can access this data, the reality is it comes with an 80-odd page manual for data administrators to upload it for websites and smartphone apps. However, once there, it will enable travellers to take better advantage of what is known as split tickets.

If a train journey from London to Newcastle is £100, for example, a traveller could book tickets for London to Peterborough, and Peterborough to Newcastle as separate journeys much cheaper, without having to change trains. Further savings could potentially be found by buying tickets for part of the journey in advance and another part on the day of travel.

Nevertheless, if websites and apps developed to use the data prove successful, the scheme may in time backfire. If rail operators find their revenue is reduced by increasing numbers of customers exploiting anomalies in the system such as splitting tickets, they might just get rid of those anomalies and price it proportionally.

But in the long run exposing these inconsistencies could lead to a clearer future pricing system - the UK has an exceptionally complicated fares system, and splitting tickets makes it even more complicated. Finding the best deal is not for the faint-hearted, and getting it wrong can find the ticket-holder on the receiving end of a penalty fare or unpaid fare notice, because the restrictions on these tickets are so confusing.

The UK’s system is not all bad, however, and any simplification must be careful not to counteract current advantages. Although the UK’s turn-up-and-go fares are far more expensive that the rest of Europe, for example, our continental counterparts offer far less frequent trains without the advantage of much cheaper advance fares.

The ATOC data release is for now a triumph for data transparency, but it may take a while before rail travellers feel they are getting a genuinely good deal.

Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.