Why is commuting so confusing?

Published by Mark King on 02 August 2013.
Last updated on 02 August 2013


As a commuter, I frequently experience delays, cancellations and route changes - all of which are frustrating in the extreme - but as an annual season ticket holder, I only purchase a ticket once a year, albeit one that costs well over £3,000.

I've just bought a new annual season ticket, and was surprised at the difference in prices quoted to me, depending on the route and train operator.

My previous annual Gold Card took me from my village in Sussex to my old workplace at London St Pancras; but now I'm working at glamorous Moneywise Towers, I need a ticket that terminates at London Bridge instead.

Both First Capital Connect (FCC) and Southern operate services on my line, but the cheapest ticket I was quoted - costing £3,400 - only permitted travel on FCC. As a long-suffering FCC customer of around five years' standing, I can categorically state that I would not wish to be limited to its services alone.

However, a ticket that also allowed me to use Southern services cost £3,916 - a whopping £516 or 15% higher.

Price discrepancies

Here's where the price discrepancies come in. I checked the price of my old route to St Pancras and was surprised to find that it allowed travel on both FCC and Southern - for £3,400. So I bought a ticket that allows me to travel, via London Bridge, all the way to St Pancras using both Southern and FCC - and it's £516 cheaper than the ticket to London Bridge alone. It doesn't make sense.

The last time the Office of Rail Regulation looked into the issue of ticketing, in 2012, it found most train passengers are confused by the ticket-buying process.

More than 50% of those polled said it was "a bit of a lottery as to whether you find the best price for a rail journey or not", while 45% said the ticketing system was too complicated for them to understand. Perhaps most damning, 41% of people said they had purchased a ticket only to discover later on that they could have made that journey on a cheaper ticket.

In March 2012, the government launched a review into rail fares and ticketing, with the goal of addressing "longstanding concerns about complexity in the system".

Transport secretary Justine Greening said: "We believe strongly that buying a rail ticket should be a straightforward transaction, not an obstacle course; and that passengers should be able to choose confidently from a range of fares, finding the best one for their journey without having to understand every nuance of the fares and retail structure."

The government is still analysing the public feedback it received following the launch of that review - something that may take another year, given the depth of feeling commuters have about the price they must pay to endure cramped conditions and poor service. In the meantime, the government has made noises about introducing smart technology, to see if an Oyster-style electronic ticketing system could be introduced across Britain's railways, but this is still some way off.

Meanwhile, the Association of Train Operating Companies is, alongside train companies, developing a "programme of initiatives", which it is rolling out over the next couple of years, focused on "improving the quality of fares information available to customers".

Whatever the solution, it can't happen soon enough. Britain's rail ticketing systems are counter-intuitive at best and downright misleading at worst.

If you're a regular rail user, let me know what you think. Do you think the service represents value for money? Did you find ticketing systems easy to use? Pop me an email at editor@moneywise.co.uk.

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