Rail operators ape budget airlines in effort to fill seats

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Passengers are to be offered new "flexible" train fares by long-distance operators in a desperate attempt to put more "bums on seats".

The new system of "bargain" tickets aims to simplify fares on the main express routes, replacing a complicated structure that means passengers can be charged up to two dozen different prices for the same journey.

The first companies to adopt the airline-style approach will be Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) and Midland Mainline, allowing passengers to buy cheap tickets up to 6pm before the day of travel instead of the present seven days.

As part of their new system, single fares will be available ahead of time, rather than just returns. That means passengers using services from London to Edinburgh and the Midlands, will not have to pay high fares for both journeys simply because they used a peak-time train on the first leg of the trip.

From 25 September travellers will be able to "mix and match"; possibly booking a standard ticket for an outward journey at peak time, and a first-class seat as a return ticket on an off-peak service.

Although some GNER services are packed, the overall seat occupancy is just 50 per cent. The company needs to increase that proportion to at least 60 per cent in order to meet its revenue targets.

As part of its successful campaign to retain the franchise, GNER management has promised the Government that the company will pay the Exchequer £1.3bn over 10 years for the privilege of operating the flagship east coast main line services. Without more customers, or much higher fares, the operator will struggle to meet that pledge.

Midland Mainline is attempting to maximise revenue; but a spokesman said the company was also trying to give passengers more options. Virgin Trains, too, is taking an axe to its byzantine three-tier fare system.

At the moment different prices are charged depending on whether passengers book 14 days, seven days, or three days ahead of the day of travel. For instance, on the London-Manchester route, passengers can pay: £12 for a single, 14 days before departure; £17 seven days ahead; and £22 if the fare is booked three days before the journey. Before the end of the year, Virgin, which operates between London and Glasgow, will keep the cheapest fares open until 6pm before the day of travel, provided the quota of cheap seats has not been filled. Virgin has come under pressure from the Government to maximise revenue so subsidies from taxpayers can be reduced.

First Great Western, which operates from Paddington, is also expected to adopt the new approach; although the company is keeping its cards close to its chest. In June, First submitted a bid to retain its franchise, but prefers to keep its plans to itself.

Despite claims by the companies that the new fares system will be passenger-friendly, there is no guarantee travellers will pay less on average. That will depend on the number of seats covered by discounted fares, and train companies refuse to reveal those details.

Operators report that passengers can now book much further ahead following measures taken by Network Rail. In most cases, the infrastructure company is now able to give train companies 12 weeks' notice of engineering work.