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system needs to be updated to adjust for the smartphone and online age, as traditional orange printed tickets become outdated, ticketing is one of the things that the British rail system does pretty well.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.