When the annual fare rises took place on 2nd January this year, shadow transport minister Michael Dugher said on BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme that Labour would ‘introduce a legal right’ for passengers to be given ‘the cheapest fare’. As shown in the Twitter conversation above, a rail user then commented that “Ticket Office staff are *already* legally obliged to offer that.”

Indeed they are, and that has always been the case since the Conservatives privatised British Rail in the 1990s. So, is the shadow transport minister ignorant about the railway and making a worthless promise?

As Railfuture director Jerry Alderson explains below, the reality is somewhere in the middle, especially where ticket machines are concerned, and trying to legislate for something as apparently simple as the ‘cheapest fare’ can be a nightmare.

The ticket office staff must sell you the cheapest fare that meets the requirements you ask for. They cannot deceive you by giving you something that is clearly excessive in order to charge you more. For example, they will always sell you a standard class ticket unless you ask for a first class one. If you asked to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow they wouldn’t sell you an expensive ticket that goes via London (although occasionally someone in an off-shore call centre might not understand the geography of Britain).

However, if you do not precisely specify what you want, or how far you are willing to go to get a cheaper fare, they will make some quite reasonable assumptions, which may result in a higher fare than if you had known what to tell them.

Because most people do not know how to save money, and therefore don’t know what to ask for, or what questions to ask, Railfuture has provided a guide to help you save money – see www.railfuture.org.uk/Rail+user+help.

Let’s say that a man wearing a smart suit, carrying a brief case, turned up at Peterborough station at 06:00 on a Monday and wanted to go to London. For a return ticket on any train, at any time, returning within a month he would pay £100.00 (from 02/01/2015).

The ticket seller probably should ask if he intends to return today, because day returns are almost always cheaper than open returns. What other questions?

He could say “sir, if you are prepared to spend 25 minutes longer travelling, with a less comfortable or spacious seat, no table, sacrifice Wi-Fi, and not have a buffet car, it would only cost £56.00.” There’s a reasonable chance the man would say yes, so should the law demand that he be told that?

However, that’s not the only saving possible. How far should the ticket seller go?

If he was going on Eurostar to Paris or Brussels he could have bought a ‘Euro High Saver’ (CIV ticket), which allows peak-time travel at off-peak fares, as well as guaranteeing the right to travel on a later Eurostar train without paying a supplement if the connecting train is delayed. But very few people would be making such a trip, so should the law demand that 1,000 people are asked a question when only one person is likely to say yes?

The person in the ticket office would be considered stupid or wasting time if they asked him: “are you travelling now, sir?” (at 6am it’s very likely) or “do you have a senior rail card, sir” (be serious!) or “are you travelling with anyone, sir?” (yes, the Invisible Man) and so on.

A better question might be “will you be making the same journey again, sir?” If so, and it is within a week then a 7-day season ticket would be cheaper if a second journey was being made on East Coast (£181.90 versus 2 x £100.00), but he would need to make three journeys on GoVia Thameslink Railway (£153.30 versus 3 x £56.00). This is getting a bit complicated, isn’t it?

If the traveller says no, should the ticket seller ask, “but will you be making any other peak-time journeys in Britain soon, sir?” If so, then an All-Line Rover giving (almost) unlimited travel for seven or 14 days could be cheaper (but not, for example, if the journey is with Virgin Trains at peak time).

Still no? “Well, sir, is it likely that you will make five peak-time return journeys on East Coast in the next three months? You could then buy a carnet for £400.00.” No? “But, sir, carnets can be used by anyone. Would you have a colleague or friend that might want to buy one of those carnet tickets off you?”

By now, with all these questions, the traveller would be more worried about missing his train. And so would the queue of people behind him who have had to endure the wait to get served.

Many people would say that the ticket seller should have shut-up, served this man as quickly as possible and then help the next person. However, they probably wouldn’t want the ticket seller to treat every customer like that.

Customer care when it is really needed

Suppose that a ‘little old lady’ turned up at 08:00 on that Monday, (still peak-time, but not for much longer), in a bad state, explaining that she has to go to London for her sister’s funeral and really can’t afford to do so. She’ll have to turn down the heating at home and eat less food to pay for it.

Wouldn’t you expect the ticket seller to suggest that she waits for the first Govia ThamesLink Railway train that arrives in London after 10:00, and explain that she cannot return in the afternoon peak, but can pay just £27.50? (Some people might hope a colleague would be called over to look after her and make her a cup of tea.)

Rather than the sledgehammer of the law dictating what a ticket seller must say to every customer, regardless of how relevant it is, might it be better to ensure that the staff in ticket offices have training to recognise certain types of people and are taught to ask the most appropriate questions?

Ticket machines are a problem

Transport Minister Claire Perry recently highlighted the fact - well known to Railfuture, which has complained to train operators over many years - that ticket vending machines (TVMs) often default to, and sometimes only sell, the most flexible, and therefore most expensive, tickets.

Historically, when technology was not very advanced, it may have made some sense for a TVM to sell a ticket that would definitely have been valid (e.g. any time on any day on any train) rather than the cheapest one with a risk of the passenger not having a valid ticket. However, despite technological advances with TVMs now having huge computing power they seem not to take account of, for example, today being a weekend or a bank holiday or that peak-time is over, or that it will end in 15 minutes. Why does any TVM allow someone to buy a peak-time ticket that is dated today and only valid today if today is a Saturday? It is undoubtedly mis-selling and, some would say, it is nothing short of criminal.

TVMs still seem to be led by ticket type rather than price and conditions. Should it not start with the cheapest ticket, just as a hotel or airline booking web-site would? As prices increase it would then explain what each more expensive ticket offers in addition to the previously shown ticket, such as the ability to travel before a certain time, and only include fares that buy something that a cheaper one does not already give. Technically, it is not difficult.

Of course, not every TVM user has English as a first language. On the European mainland many TVMs offer a range of languages (seven in Vienna, for example), and Railfuture would like as many TVMs as possible to support as wide range of common languages as possible.

After someone has found the best ticket for themselves on this occasion, before confirming payment it could then ask whether they have considered buying a rail card (showing how many times they would need to make that specific journey for it to be worthwhile), or whether they are travelling with anyone else (telling them how much a Group Save ticket or Two Together railcard would have saved them). Modern computer screen interfaces can clearly explain such things with suitable graphics and most rail customers are used to computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Elephant in the room

Of course, the elephant in the room here is not the communication of the available fares but the huge range of, sometimes contradictory, fares with varying travel conditions. Compare the range of rail fares in Britain to other European countries where there is usually no concept of peak or off-peak, for example. This article hasn’t mentioned ‘split tickets’ – a notorious way of saving money, Passengers in other countries do not have to resort to such tactics to get cheaper fares.

Research for this article made use of www.brfares.com.

Read previous articles by this writer: Bring Back BR?, Public Sector Franchises, Fare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.