‘Split tickets’ point the way to sensible rail fares

Train talk: State-run LNER helps travellers save cash painlessly, providing the kind of disruption we actually need on the railway

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 17 May 2022 22:02 BST
<p>Arriving soon: cheaper rail fares to and from London King’s Cross on LNER</p>

Arriving soon: cheaper rail fares to and from London King’s Cross on LNER

Search online for “Didcot dodge”. Actually to save you the trouble, I’ve already done just that. It should lead to an article from 2018 with the headline “Trains are slowly getting better, but rail fares remain a shambles”.

It begins: “Don’t like the £105 peak fare from Bristol to London? Our absurd pricing system allows you to save £43 by deploying the Didcot Dodge.”

As you might predict, the shambles continues – with the saving for “splitting a ticket” increased by a pound. If you are unaware of the technique, all you do is buy one ticket from Bristol to Didcot Parkway and another from there to Paddington station in the capital, and make sure you board a train that stops at the Oxfordshire junction (though you don’t have to hop off and hop on again).

This rail hack is the best-known example of ticket-splitting: exploiting the many anomalies baked into the national fares structure. (Peak-hour trip from London to Southampton? The key to saving cash is Woking.)

Until the online age, splitting a journey was very much a minority sport, involving queuing up and waiting for the booking clerk to print out an intricate series of tickets.

Thanks to ticketing apps, organising a split journey has become effortless – especially when the giant retailer, Trainline, moved in. If the very friendly tech has persuaded you to make it your go-to ticket provider (despite the surcharges it charges), then you will be familiar with the SpiltSave feature that automatically searches the best deal for you.

Effortless – but not necessarily painless. I am a frequent splitter, but when combining two or more Advance tickets the seat reservations are almost always in different carriages.

I was delighted, therefore, to find a different provider guaranteeing a split saving where you can stay seated – and amazed to see that it was London North Eastern Railway (LNER).

This is the state-run train operator that connects London with Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland on the east coast main line.

LNER promises: “Same great savings as a split-ticket but we do all the hard work, meaning you can sit back and enjoy a great saving without any of the hassle.”

The operator has started trialling a Smart Save offer on app sales that mimics Trainline – but with the added twist of guaranteeing the same seat.

LNER owns the inventory for each train, and can therefore make this happen.

While it is very much at a limited trial stage (I have struggled to find further examples of savings), the move is just what we need. Not just so that hard-pressed travellers can make some savings during a cost of living crisis. And not just to counter another nonsense story about how flying from Newcastle via Spain to London was cheaper than a train to the capital, heightening perceptions that rail fares are unaffordable. It is essential as a step along the path to single-leg pricing, as pioneered by easyJet 27 years ago.

We now accept without question the concept that European airfares depend on day, time and demand. An evening flight on easyJet from Gatwick to Nice on Monday 18 July costs £29, but by the following Saturday lunchtime fares are nine times higher.

For a properly competitive, thriving railway, we need pricing to stimulate journeys at times when there is plenty of space and to dampen demand when everyone wants to travel.

You may have the same nagging thought as me about the LNER move, as applied to the company’s advance fares: the firm is selling a combo ticket from A to B and B to C for less than A to C. So why not just cut the latter?

Even so, LNER Smart Save deserves praise. The state-owned operator is competing like an upstart innovator, providing the kind of disruption we actually need on the railway to cut through the absurd tangle of train fares.

It remains to be seen if ministers – in particular the chancellor and transport secretary – have the courage to carry through with the fares reform that everyone accepts is desperately needed. The trouble is, while many journeys will be cheaper, other prices will rise.

As that Didcot Dodge article concludes: “Single-leg pricing – the only rational solution – will eventually prevail. A politician brave enough to say so deserves a first-class return.”

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