Experience shows that the veracity of many statements made by politicians of every hue can be improved by adding or subtracting the word “not”.
In 2003, for example, the then-foreign secretary, Jack Straw, explained that it was proving tricky to find those elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because it was “a country twice the size of France”. In fact, Iraq is one-fifth smaller than our near neighbour.
And in the context of airport expansion in southeast England, countless transport secretaries have asserted: “Doing nothing is not an option.” They have then demonstrated that inertia was the very option they had in mind.
This week the current transport secretary vowed he was “ending the rip-off that you pay for a single ticket almost as much as you pay for a return journey”. Yet Grant Shapps’s assertion on rail fares becomes more accurate if you add “not” to the start of the phrase.
Here’s the context. As you know, train pricing is riddled with anomalies. One-way fares for immediate travel, even outside the rush hours, can be absurd. For a 74-minute hop from Stevenage to Retford, for example, the fare on the nationalised train operator London North Eastern Railway (LNER) works out at £1 per minute. But if you want a return, the entire southbound trip will cost just £1 more.
Every sensible soul in the rail industry wants to move to “single-leg pricing”, as practised by budget airlines. The principle: you should be offered a fair fare whether you want to return in an hour, a month or never.
At last a serious trial is taking place between London King’s Cross and the three key stations on the East Coast main line. An off-peak single to or from Leeds now costs £58.35; Newcastle, £72.85; and Edinburgh, £75.75.
But the experiment makes a Byzantine fares system even more complicated – and introduces the prospect of more rip-offs.
Suppose you want to travel one way from Dunbar to London. You will be quoted a monstrous £150.50. But ask for a ticket from Edinburgh, 20 minutes further from King’s Cross, and the price almost halves to £75.75. Unlike Advance tickets, the new off-peak fares entitle you to buy a ticket between the capitals but join or leave the train at any intermediate station.
Likewise from Durham, Darlington and York: to save a minimum of £40 on a trip to London, ask for a ticket from Newcastle to King’s Cross. From Doncaster or Retford, save a small fortune by theoretically beginning your trip in Leeds.
Initially I predict mayhem. These tickets come with free seat reservations. As crafty passengers exploit the new, weird world of rail pricing, there will be acres of unoccupied seats for parts of the journey which they have no intention of making.
Other travellers will be understandably furious when they discover they have paid way over the odds.
The trial will contaminate the finances of rival train operators. Because there are no restrictions on the cheap tickets beyond time constraints, many passengers on East Midlands Railway and Avanti West Coast can now save money by using a ticket between London and Leeds or Edinburgh respectively.
London-Edinburgh will cover many West Coast journeys, including – crucially – the key peak evening departures from Euston to Manchester. The usual time restrictions do not apply for travellers to the Scottish capital, meaning that no one need ever pay Avanti’s standard peak fare of £180 one way for, say, the 6pm Euston-Manchester. Instead, they buy a £75.75 ticket and save over £100.
A new London-Leeds ticket will save “walk-up” passengers money on many journey on the East Midlands line. No need to go near an LNER train, either.
These enterprises will be unimpressed by what they term “revenue abstraction”, and you might call losing shedloads of cash to a competitor.
LNER and the Department for Transport do not appear to have thought through the consequences of allowing the new tickets to be used on any train operator and any permitted route.
Once the unintended consequences of their brave but botched experiment emerge, LNER will be obliged to streamline the entire fares system – and, as the effects intrude on other operators’ patches, the nation’s fares system may miraculously turn sensible quicker than you or I could have dreamt.
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