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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FTSE 100 plunges after Theresa May signals hard Brexit ahead

The Prime Minister is to lay out her Brexit plan later today. 

The FTSE 100 and the FTSE 250 plummeted this morning after the Prime Minister signalled Brexit will mean leaving the single market.

Theresa May is expected to rule out "partial membership" or any other kind of "half-in, half-out" deal with the EU in a speech later today.

The FTSE 100, the index of the UK's 100 biggest companies, and the FTSE 250 both fell more than 0.3 per cent immediately after opening. 

The worst performers included the housebuilder Barratt Developments, consumer goods tester Intertek and the mining company BHP.

Stock markets have been buoyant since Brexit, in part because many of Britain's biggest companies are international and benefit from a devalued pound. 

However, while markets fell, the pound crept up against the dollar, to $1.21. 

Critics of the Prime Minister say she is sacrificing the economy to prioritise immigration controls.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady warned: "If we leave the single market, working people will end up paying the price. It'd be bad for jobs, for work rights & for our living standards."

According to the Office for National Statistics, inflation rose from 1.2 per cent in November to 1.6 per cent in December. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.