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

Busting the myths of free data.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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.