We’re about to be treated to the McNulty report on the UK’s railways. Part of this is going to be about getting costs down, so there have been a slew of rumours about line closures, service reductions and price increases. Also affected by this is the re-tendering of the InterCity West Coast franchise which I looked at yesterday.
As Christian Wolmar has already figured out, the reality is that McNulty doesn’t have much room for action – so forget significant closures and service reductions, or indeed any kind of radical upheaval – and that savings will be modest. This has not stopped part of the Fourth Estate interpreting McNulty in its own way, and in the case of the Daily Mail, doing so wrongly.
The Mail take on McNulty comes in a piece which tells that “A move to simplify the bamboozling array of fares faced by rail travellers will be announced tomorrow”. No it won’t. The open ticket – where the holder can travel on any train – won’t be going anywhere, and neither will off-peak fares – those that allow travel outside peak periods.
Any attempt to remove advance fares, where passengers book ahead and commit to a specific train, usually getting a less expensive deal as a result, will not go down well with cost conscious travellers. And after all that, there is little left. The Mail also tells of “greater emphasis on simple, flexible ‘airline-style’ ticketing, where passengers pay more when a train is full and less when it is empty”. This is complete drivel.
The concept hinted at by the Mail – known as demand management – is already used by train operators in their offer of advance tickets. And the current fares – open, off-peak, and advance – are at levels set out beforehand, and known to a greater or lesser extent by travellers. What they are outlining would not make things simpler, and it wouldn’t stop episodes such as that involving the Spacey family, who they championed recently.
Airline style demand management works for point to point journeys without connections, and commits all concerned to a specific flight. As soon as “walk up and go” flexibility is required, the idea falls flat. Or is the Mail advocating the approach used for Inter-City journeys in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal where, when all seats on a train are sold, you don’t get on?The current fares system can be confusing to the uninitiated – and bad journalism by papers like the Mail doesn’t help – but it has evolved from the need to give “walk up and go” flexibility, while filling off-peak trains, on a network where many journeys require a change of train, and where, to an extent, you’re allowed on board even if there isn’t a seat. It ain’t perfect, but until someone has a better idea, that’s how it is.