Another Bank Holiday approaches, and schools will be closed, too – so what better than a good old slice of why-oh-why journalism to tell those hard-working parents that they’re being ripped off? “Family train fares double at half-term: Rail firms admit prices go up during times of increased demand but deny profiting from hard-pressed parents” thunders the Daily Mail today.
A Virgin Trains Pendolino train passes Tamworth (note to Daily Mail picture editor: these are the ones that also go to Liverpool)
Prices go up when there is greater demand? That would be news to those of us who travel by train on a more or less regular basis. Have open return fares gone up? Nope. How about those rather less expensive off-peak fares? Well, no, they don’t go up during school holidays, either. In fact, the Mail cannot actually show one example of a fare increase to support their headline.
The assertion is, instead, backed up by this line: “The Rail Delivery Group, which speaks on behalf of the rail industry, accepted that ‘airline style pricing’ meant prices rise when demand is highest”. That’s the same “airline style pricing” that the Mail does not find such a problem when it means readers can get bargain basement deals from low cost air carriers.
So what is the evidence, and why is it so weak – even by Daily Mail standards? Well, moving past the photo captioned “The survey found that a family of four travelling on Virgin Trains from Liverpool to London will pay £19 extra during half-term”, showing a Voyager train set that does not serve Liverpool (the Mail never can get its photo details right, can it?), it all comes down to availability of advance purchase tickets.
And here a problem enters: “watchdogs say customers have no idea how many are available at the cheapest prices”. So this means, let us not drive this one around the houses for too long, that neither the Mail, Passenger Focus, nor the punters know whether prices have actually gone up. Check out what the Mail actually did.
“With the help of Passenger Focus, the Daily Mail looked at the prices of a cross-section of the cheapest return journeys for a family of four – two adults and two children - during next week’s half-term period, and compared them with the same journeys four weeks later in term time. To compare prices with a normal working week and to avoid complications with the Bank Holiday weekend, the half-term dates chosen for travel were going out on Tuesday May 27 and returning on Friday May 30 ... The term-time dates four weeks later were going out on Tuesday June 24 and returning on Friday June 27. Prices were taken from the National Train Enquiries website”. Actually, it’s called National Rail Enquiries.
Fine. Now answer me this one, Mail people: how far in advance were the bookings made? We don’t get to find that out. The differences in price are most likely down to increased demand, and that the cheapest tickets had already sold out.
Rail operators have a finite number of seats. It’s called supply and demand. Nobody is getting ripped off. Passengers pay for it in fares – or everyone pays via subsidy.