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TAKEN We're being FOR A RIDE; CHEAPER RAIL FARES BEING HIDDEN ON TICKET MACHINES..AND IT CAN ADD HUNDREDS TO TRIPCampaigners urge Government to cap prices and make system easier to understand.

Byline: Geraldine McKelvie EXCLUSIVE

BRITAIN'S rail users are being overcharged when they buy tickets at station self-service machines - sometimes by hundreds of pounds.

Almost a quarter of tickets are sold at the machines and a Sunday People probe reveals huge price variations.

We found one machine selling two tickets to the same destination with a PS326 price difference - the cheaper one buried on a different menu.

Yards away, ticket office staff offered cheaper rates which weren't available on the machine. And in most cases, we were able to buy peak tickets for the next working day for less than halfprice by shopping online.

Many self-service units promoted expensive fares, hid cheaper options and did not explain that travelling with a different provider on the same route could save hundreds of pounds.

Travellers can also save by dividing journeys into multiple legs while remaining on the same train - known as "split ticketing". Campaigners have called on the Government to cap fares and simplify the UK's complex fare system on the back of our findings.

Bruce Williamson of pressure group Railfuture said: "We've had inflationbusting rail fares year on year and now they're the most expensive in Europe.

"We need to cap rail fares until they get down to more reasonable levels. We also need a simplified fare structure across companies and the network.

Intervene "This system runs the risk of discriminating against older passengers and those who cannot search online. The Government must intervene."

Rail travel is at record levels with 1.59 billion journeys logged in 2013-2014. And since 2004, the proportion of passenger revenue collected by machines is up from seven to 21 per cent. Customers buying tickets from a machine can pay more than PS400 - when a ticket for the same destination can be found elsewhere at the station for more than PS300 less.

Our probe revealed customers are offered different prices for the same journey depending on which operator's machine they use. At London King's Cross, the Great Northern and Virgin units said it would cost PS224 for a peak return to both Leeds and York. The same ticket to Newcastle cost PS276.

But staff at the ticket office said it was cheaper to buy two singles. It was PS16 cheaper to travel to York and Leeds and PS18 cheaper to Newcastle.

We were unable to do this on the machines as they only sell tickets departing from the station they are installed in. But each of the journeys cost far less online - we could get to Leeds for PS122.60, Newcastle for PS90.90 and York for PS65.50.

At Bristol Temple Meads, a peak return ticket to Manchester cost PS171.80 at both the machine and the ticket office. But we discovered we could complete the same journey in the same time for PS84.10 by buying six separate tickets: a return from Bristol to Cheltenham for PS16.60, another from Cheltenham to Wolverhampton for PS38.40, one from Wolverhampton to Stafford for PS8.30, and then Stafford to Stoke-on-Trent for PS6.80.

We could then buy a single from Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester for PS7.50 and another from Manchester to Stokeon-Trent for PS6.50. Incredibly, we would still be eligible to travel on the 7am peak-time direct service to Manchester Piccadilly without changing once.

At London Euston, a London Midland machine told us a first-class anytime return to Liverpool Lime Street would cost PS475 and a standard ticket PS312. But by looking at a second menu buried on the same device, we found much cheaper fares. A first-class ticket to the same station at peak time was PS149 if we changed trains at Crewe - while a standard ticket was PS107.

Options Cheaper fares to Glasgow and Birmingham were also buried on the London Midland machine. However, if you use the Virgin ticket machine right next to the London Midland unit, the options are laid out clearly.

At the ticket office, we were told discount singles to many destinations were available by booking just 12 hours in advance. These rates were not advertised on the machine. And by shopping online, we could buy a peak ticket to Glasgow for PS173 less than the cheapest ticket on the machine.

Railfuture said walk-on prices are so high in Britain because we have 23 licensed passenger service providers.

In many European countries, there are far fewer providers - meaning onthe-day fares do not vary so widely. In Germany, for example, most services are operated by state-owned Deutsche Bahn but there are also some state-subsidised regional providers.

Mr Williamson said we should look to our neighbours for examples of fairer, less complex pricing systems.

He said: "There are all sorts of anomalies in the system and there's a very strong case for simplifying it.

"Bargains are available if you're prepared to jump through hoops but most people want to turn up and buy a ticket at a price which won't force them to get a new mortgage.

"If you visit any other European country, the tickets are much more sensibly priced and less complex.

"Unless you're confident about what you're buying, the chances are you won't get the best bargain at the ticket machine. Ticket machines from different companies operate in different ways, so it becomes very confusing. We just need three ticket types: a single, a return and an advance discount. People will understand this."

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, echoed concerns that the system is overly complicated. He said: "Passengers should automatically be sold the cheapest ticket. It's more than two years since [the Government] committed to giving passengers a better deal as part of the fares review. We want action."

When we presented our findings to Shadow Transport Minister Lillian Greenwood, she slammed the ticketing system as "deeply unfair".

She said: "We have some of the most expensive fares in Europe. Passengers are being ripped off for hundreds of pounds by misleading machines, despite ministers promising to fix the problem. It's time we had a proper review of ticketing rules and legal rights to the lowest fares, as Labour has called for. We need a fairer deal for passengers and our railways."

Pressure A London Midland spokesman admitted machines are "limited in what they can do". They said: "If you want the best deals, you are better going to the booking office or online.

"As an industry, we're putting pressure on the suppliers to come up with better machines. The principal purpose of ticket machines is queue busting."

A spokesman for Great Northern said: "Ticket machines are programmed to offer anytime tickets first to give full flexibility." They added that anytime singles are cheaper as they have to be used on the date shown.

Virgin Trains said: "We advise customers to book in advance as this enables them to get the best deals."

And a spokesman for Great Western added: "We try to accommodate people's journeys in the best way possible and give them the best prices possible with the information we have."

features@people.co.uk Buy a winning ticket...

If using a machine, check all options - often several pages - to get the best rate for your time of travel. And don't buy straight away if you get to the station early. Depending on the time, you may pay a higher rate.

Remember you can often make big savings by splitting a journey into several legs, like the journey from Bristol to Manchester above. Website trainsplit.com will help you do this. Also, look for slower options - like travelling from London to Liverpool via Crewe.

If you're a frequent passenger, a railcard can help. If you travel regularly with children, the family and friends card is a good option at PS30 per year.

And even if you're travelling the next day, you can make massive savings by booking online as opposed to buying tickets at machines in the station. Don't assume it's too late to check.

VOICE OF THE Fairness goes off the rails TRAVELLING by train shouldn't be this complicated.

The whole point of self-service machines at stations should be to make buying tickets more convenient for the customer.

Yet our shocking investigation today raises suspicions that it's in the rail companies' interests for customers to be confused.

That way they can claim to offer cheaper fares while trousering extra profits from travellers who can't find them.

This is not the age of George Stephenson's original Rocket.

And, with the technology now available, it should not be rocket science to offer customers the cheapest available fare every time.

Weasel All they should need to do is key in where they want to go and when, and up it pops.

We asked for an explanation and all we got was weasel words and double-speak from the weasels who run the railways.

London Midland had the nerve to tell us ticketing was too complex for ticket machines to master!

Simplify the system, then. It works in Europe where fewer choices mean lower fares.

And if the 23 rail operators are reluctant to do that, ministers should consider having fewer of those, too.

Rolling stock from different companies trundling over the same stretch of track just adds to ticketing confusion.

Sensible We were told ticket machines principally exist so passengers can avoid queues.

There's a simple answer to that, too. Get more ticket office staff. There must be demand for them if queues are a problem.

Labour is calling for operators to be given a legal duty to offer passengers their lowest fares.

That is a sensible solution which the rail regulator could enforce.

And operators who are still baffled by the workings of their ticket machines would be welcome to hand back their franchises.

That should make fares fair.

CAPTION(S):

PRICES VARY: A service by London Midland

CONFUSING: Self-service machines
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Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 14, 2016
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