Fares and ticketing – there are few other subjects that meet with such derision from the travelling public.
Buying a train ticket is too expensive and too complicated. These are arguments we’ve all heard before and now, probably more than ever before, passengers want to know what the industry is doing to address their concerns.
Over the past week or so, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) have tried to reassure passengers in the UK that they are looking out for their interests.
Last week, the ORR revealed research suggesting 20 per cent of the passengers that use ticket vending machines are either buying more expensive tickets than they need or are risking a penalty fare by purchasing less flexible options.
The regulator is calling on operators to offer a price guarantee and refund passengers that find they’ve paid over the odds. “This is necessary to build trust and demonstrate they are responding to passengers’ needs,” said the ORR.
It would be a positive step but does it solve the problem?
Passengers would still have to find a cheaper ticket themselves and then contact the operator for a refund. How many people is this likely to benefit if passengers are struggling to find the cheapest tickets in the first place?
An earlier announcement went a bit further. It proposed a substantial overhaul of the ticketing system which would involve reforming what are seen as restrictive, outdated regulations surrounding return fares.
New pricing and simplified routes will be trialled on several lines this year which, RDG says, will make journey planning easier and ensure passengers are told if there is a cheaper ticket available.
The action plan, which was drawn up by RDG, the Department for Transport (DfT), Transport Focus and Which?, doesn’t just seek to address pricing, it talks about reducing confusing jargon and making the information displayed on ticket machines clearer.
RDG says all ticket machines will be updated by the end of the year and passengers should start to see improvements by the summer.
It could be that technology is the answer. The action plan also includes a commitment to provide more data to third-party developers to try and accelerate the creation of new consumer apps designed to make it easier for passengers to negotiate the network.
The proliferation of mobile ticketing and contactless payment cards in recent years shows that we are moving towards a simpler, paperless future.
A trial due to be conducted by Chiltern Railways this year could prove pivotal. The operator is preparing to test Bluetooth beacon technology on its route between Oxford and London. The beacons will communicate with passengers’ smartphones as they pass through the stations, tracking their journeys and charging the cheapest fare to their accounts at the end of the day.
Of course, not everyone owns a smartphone. Even some of those that do may not place enough trust in its battery life to gamble on their journey home. It means that for the foreseeable future operators will have to continue to offer a mix of physical and digital tickets.
But what if passengers didn’t have to buy a ticket at all? Separately to its piece on ticketing, RDG released a ‘digital blueprint’ for the railway earlier this month. It floated the idea of biometric ticketing and a distant future where passengers’ eyes and fingerprints are their tickets.
This may seem like an elaborate solution when there are still fundamental issues to address, but maybe the complex issue of ticketing needs a radical solution.
Written by Marc Johnson