An investigation by Which? has revealed that poor advice from rail staff means that some passengers could be paying more than double the cheapest train fare.
Research found that two thirds of clerks at station ticket offices and four in 10 National Rail Enquiries call centre staff failed to quote the cheapest fare. Which? also found that when there was a choice of train company, the ticket price quoted was the more expensive fare in more than 50% of cases.
Martyn Hocking, editor of Which? magazine, says: "If you just want to know the cheapest way to get from A to B, you'd expect staff at the station ticket office or on the end of the rail enquiries helpline to be able to tell you.
"It's not acceptable that passengers could be paying well over the odds because of poor advice. Rail firms must ensure that staff are properly trained and that fare information is clear."
The report comes just days after the government confirmed that train fares should fall by 0.4% next year thanks to one measure of inflation remaining in negative territory in July.
Most train companies use July’s Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation plus 1% to set their 2010 many of their fares.
As RPI stood at -1.4% during the month most regulated fares should technically fall by 0.4% in absolute terms come January 2010.
Regulated fares include:
* Commuter fares (weekly, monthly and season tickets)
* Anytime day singles and returns
* Walk-on fares in commuter areas for short distances
* Long-distance off-peak fares
Regulated fares do not include advance and anytime fares on long-distance routes.
The majority of train operators use RPI + 1% to set fares, with the exception of Southeastern and the Northern franchise of West Yorkshire PTE.
Previously, train operators were able to increase some individual regulated fares by as much as 5% as long as the average increase across all fares was no more than RPI + 1%. In February this year, however, the government announced this flexibility would be scrapped in 2010.
Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis says: “For the first time in a generation passengers across the country will see their fares fall. Drops in fares should encourage more people to travel by train, which is good for the economy and the environment.”
Adonis also revealed that he will remove train companies’ ability to increase individual fares by up to 5% above the national change next year. “This means most regulated fares will fall in line with the national fare change, which will be welcomed by passengers," he adds.
However, Campaign for Better Transport says the measure used to set regulated fares still means passengers are paying 1% above inflation – a rise in real terms.
Cat Hobbs, a public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport, says: “The government is pretending it’s being tough on train companies by sticking to the RPI + 1% formula for regulated fares. In fact, this formula means that passengers will still pay more in real terms.”
She adds: “The government is trying to take the credit for a negative inflation rate, while still raising fares above inflation. With people's pay packets already restricted, now is the time to stop this crazy policy.”
In addition, Campaign for Better Transport warns train companies may resist cutting fares, and will get around the rule by changing time restrictions.
It says that First Great Western recently announced changes to time restrictions on its off-peak fares and the introduction of a new super off-peak fare, that means many passengers will see their fares go up by 20%.