On Wednesday, I woke up in December 1973.
Slade were singing “Merry Xmas Everybody” on the radio, Britain’s role in Europe was being fiercely debated and industrial strife prevailed: Post Office workers were planning a walkout, and the Southern rail network was at a standstill due to a demarcation dispute about whether drivers or guards should operate the doors.
While the Southern strike has elements that hark back to a year when the “Beeching cuts” were still ripping up the network, this week has also witnessed an important railway resurgence.
On Monday, the first new rail link from a major city to London in a century opened. Chiltern Railways has paid £130m, and Network Rail £190m, to connect Oxford with Marylebone station in the capital. Passengers boarding in the university city may be perplexed to find themselves initially travelling north-east to Bicester, before a sharp right turn puts the train on the south-east trajectory to London. Partly because of this meander, Chilterns’ services are not quite as quick as their Great Western Railway rivals that run from Oxford to Reading and Paddington. But they provide welcome competition to the existing trains – as well as the high-frequency buses that zip up and down the M40 between London and Oxford.
The new link also provided the chance for Chiltern to make the fare structure on Britain’s railways more sensible.
An obvious consequence of the irrationality of rail fares is the practice of “split ticketing”: when travellers like me who probably have too much time on our hands will seek to save money by buying two separate tickets for one journey. The best example is this: the Anytime Virgin Trains fare from Rugby to London is £66. But choose a Virgin Train that stops en route in Milton Keynes, and buy one ticket for the first stage of the journey (£13.90), a second for the remaining part (£19.60), and you better than halve the cost of a peak-time trip to the capital.
There is nothing illegal or underhand about this trick, so long as the train you catch is scheduled to pause at the Buckinghamshire new town. But it reveals one of many glaring absurdities built into the fares system.
Five years ago, Sir Roy McNulty’s report, Realising the Potential of GB Rail, complained about a fare structure “which is complex, and often appears illogical”.
Chiltern had a chance to apply logic and simplicity to its shiny new route, but chose not to. From London Marylebone to Oxford, an Anytime ticket costs £30.60, an Off-Peak £24.90. But buying split tickets with another Buckinghamshire town, High Wycombe, as the waypoint costs a maximum of £22.60. That saves 10 per cent off-peak, and more than a quarter in rush hour.
This week the rail minister, Paul Maynard, led an industry forum vowing “to improve ticketing information for passengers and make it easier for people to choose the best-value fare for their journey”. There are some welcome improvements promised; for example, if you forget your railcard and end up having to pay full price (or, even worse, a penalty fare), your first offence will be forgiven and you will be able to claim back any additional expenses. But I fear the initiative will mainly involve tinkering at the edges of a fares system that is fundamentally flawed.
Laudably, Mr Maynard says: “Rail passengers must be able to trust that they are getting the best possible deal every time they travel.” But the uncomfortable consequence of that promise is that Oxford-bound passengers at Marylebone must be told about the savings from split tickets – to the undoubted dismay of train operators, not to mention people stuck in the queue behind timewasters like me.
In 1973, British Rail was just starting to experiment with off-peak train fares, beginning with “Big City Savers” between London and Scotland. By the time of privatisation, an elaborate pricing structure was in place. It was set in stone to dampen public anger against the sell-off.
A generation on, this archaic system hobbles the market. Passengers, and the taxpayers who prop up the railways, deserve government and rail industry to end the timidity about tampering with fares. At the risk of giving you a musical “ear worm” for the rest of the day, Slade were right when they ended their Yuletide anthem: “Look to the future now/It’s only just begun.”
Let’s see who has the courage to acknowledge that many tickets are too expensive, many are too cheap, and that a system that incentivises people to pretend they want to go to Bucks is bonkers.
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