Virgin Trains wants to ban standing on trains, even though it’s the best part of the UK rail system

A Virgin train, probably including standing passengers. Image: Getty.

If you’ve spent much time travelling on long-distance rail services around the world, you’ll know that they vary immensely in speed, quality, reliability and price. But one thing that they almost all share is that you can’t just buy a standard ticket and get on the next train.

Even for state-run services like the French TGV or New Zealand’s KiwiRail, you need to buy an advance ticket for a specific seat and time. In countries with private on-rail competition like Italy, it’s even more of a nightmare, with competing services and incompatible tickets sold in different parts of the station.

Things are different in the UK. If you want to save money and book a specific seat on a specific train online, then you can – but you don’t have to. A flexible walk-on ticket is valid to get on any train to your destination, no matter which train operating company (TOC) sold you the ticket. You don’t have to book a seat, and even if there aren’t any seats available then you don’t have to miss the train, if you don’t mind standing.

This nearly didn’t happen. When British Rail was privatised, the original plans would have deregulated ticketing, allowing the same kind of mess that proliferates elsewhere. But thankfully, clearer heads prevailed on this issue, preserving the integrated ticket system from the passenger’s point of view. An IT system called ORCATS uses complicated algorithms to work out how to split the money raised between TOCs.

Under the current arrangements, which have barely changed since 1994, TOCs can offer cheaper fares valid only on their own services or on advance bookings – but they must continue offering and accepting flexible any-operator tickets.

Price regulation focuses on these flexible tickets, with their price rises held down no matter what TOCs choose to do with their own fares. And unless it’s unsafe to do so – which is rarely the case, as all modern trains’ crash safety is designed with crush loading in mind – they have to take anyone on the train who has a valid ticket and wants to get on it.

According to research by the Office of the Rail Regulator, passengers like this flexibility. The regulator found that passengers are willing to pay substantially more for a fully flexible ticket than one valid only at specified times or valid only for a specified TOC. In short, although the system needs to be updated to adjust for the smartphone and online age, as traditional orange printed tickets become outdated, ticketing is one of the things that the British rail system does pretty well.


This makes Virgin Trains’s submission to the Williams Review into the UK rail system a bit surprising. Virgin, which currently operates long distance services from London to northwest England and western Scotland, wants to get rid of flexible ticketing and move to an all-reserved system where only people with a seat can travel on any particular train.

At first look, it’s hard to see who this would benefit.

It would reduce some of the complexity associated with the ORCATS system, but it wouldn’t remove it altogether – unless everyone travelling from Brighton to Rochdale is forced to buy three separate tickets, connecting fares still need to be sold for passengers travelling from stations outside the Virgin network, and the revenue for those tickets would still need to be divided between operators.

It wouldn’t make life easier for passengers, who currently have the choice of buying a discount advance ticket via the Virgin website, or of buying a full-fare ticket on the day; all it would do is to remove the second option. And it would prevent people from travelling at busy times of day unless they book their ticket well in advance.

Maybe it’s the latter that Virgin wants. The company attracted a great deal of bad PR in 2016, after leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn travelled on a full Virgin train on a flexible ticket. Corbyn’s communications team put out a press release about how the fact that the trains are full is terrible, in order to advance his policy of rail nationalisation.

It’s strange that people on all sides of the rail debate use the fact that trains in the UK are full at busy times as a sign that the system is failing, rather than an indication of its enormous success. Trains and railways are expensive capital equipment which cost almost the same to operate whether they are full or empty, so it is best both to society and to the environment if their peak capacity involves them running as full as possible.

Still, “Full trains are bad” has become the popular narrative, and it’s easy to see why branded TOCs don’t want to be associated with them. Seat rationing would make life harder for passengers, but the inconvenience it would cause is far less visible to the general public than the inconvenience of being on a jam-packed train at a popular time of day. And if the company is feeling especially greedy, then it could also jack up the prices on these popular trains, now that capacity is artificially restricted by banning standing.

So Virgin’s proposal is in its own interests – or at least, will be in its interests if it is able to keep its franchise, which is another story. But it certainly isn’t in the interests of the travelling public.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.