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Why Should We Be Offered the Cheapest Rail Fare?

The news that consumer watchdog Which? magazine has found rail operator ticket sales staff not quoting the cheapest fares probably won't surprise anyone. If the research is rigorous, which the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) says it is not, it shows a serious customer disservice on their part.

Assuming Which?'s data is good, one question remains unanswered: is this an issue of laziness and ignorance, or is it a conscious policy to wring revenues out of passengers?

Even at best, it's a customer service gaff on a fairly large scale.

There are a few issues which may support the innocent mistake option:

  • Rail tariffing is mind-bendingly complex, with every train operator given a relatively free hand to set fares however they like. On top of that there is a fare scale based on the distance, popularity of the service, route, time of day and length of time between outward and return journey. Clearly It's no small task wading through all those variables.
  • The UK rail system is a largely unregulated patchwork of private companies with no clear allegiances to each other. As a result, the issue of who actually owns and has responsibility for the customer has to be muddied somewhat. The person a passenger buys their ticket from, be it on the phone or through a booth probably doesn't care how much they pay to travel with a completely different organisation.
  • In many cases, there is no competition for a passenger on a particular route, so the urge to give them excellent customer service by finding the cheapest possible ticket for them is not so strong as if the customer could readily go somewhere else for their train travel.
  • The majority of train passengers fall into two categories: People who can't drive -- the young and the old, and business travellers. The first group may lack the initiative to push for the cheapest fare. The second may not care as it's a refunded expense.
So, these are some of the natural reasons why ticket sales staff may not be as scrupulous as they might about finding the cheapest fare. If, on the other hand suggesting premium fares to passengers is a conscious decision on the part of rail companies, what else should we expect?

Rail travel is a private enterprise, where each of the companies within has to show a profit to continue operating (so far). Although train operators are legally obliged to find the cheapest fare for a specified time of travel, there's no obligation for them to mention the ticket might be cheaper if the passenger took another train ten minutes later.

And what other transport operator has even that responsibility. If you book a plane ticket with Ryanair, would you expect the person on the other end to point you to Easyjet if the fare was cheaper? It's the passenger's task to make sure they have the cheapest air fare.

Luckily there are lots of websites and travel agents that can help you book the cheapest flight - for a commission.

If Which?'s report holds water and a significant number of passengers are being over-charged, there are a few things that should happen to help the problem.

  • ATOC needs to reassure customers that rail operators have their interests at heart, not just question the validity of a critic's accusation. And if necessary, take steps to re-educate ticket sales staff.
  • Ticket information needs to be much more readily available than from the few current sources.
  • Tariffing needs to be simplified, so that it is easier to compare fares with different operators or at different times.
  • Travel agents should be incentivised to offer easy train ticket booking services by commissions paid by the rail operators collectively, to provide a more independent third-party service for customers.
(Pic: JasonRogersFooDogGiraffeBee cc2.0)