Transport User Voice February 2024 – LNER long-distance fares trial
31 January 2024
Better value rail fares?
This month LNER announced a new fares pilot on journeys between London King’s Cross and Newcastle, London and Berwick-upon-Tweed and London and Edinburgh. So, will this mean better value fares for passengers?
The pilot temporarily abolishes peak times with the aim of ‘helping to smooth demand for services over the course of the day’. The trial also temporarily removes the regulated Off-Peak single and introduces a ‘70min Flex’ (Semi-Flexible) fare. This is a new type of Advance fare which offers flexibility to travel on other LNER services up to 70 minutes before or after the booked train.
The ‘Easier Fares for All’ consultation in 2019 showed widespread public support for fares reform. Transport Focus has also pushed for reform and welcomed the previous extension of single-leg pricing across all LNER’s routes. This latest pilot is a much more radical change for passengers, albeit just on a relatively small number of long-distance journeys. It’s right to trial new ideas first to see if they work. Much better that ideas are tested thoroughly before a decision is made about whether to roll them out more widely.
LNER have also pointed out that the majority of passengers making these journeys already use Advance tickets, with no flexibility. Only 11 per cent of journeys on the routes in the trial are currently made with the Off-Peak fares that are no longer available. Introducing a ‘Semi-flexible’ ticket means that some level of flexibility during traditional peak times will now be more affordable than before, when the only flexible option was the very expensive Anytime ticket.
Passengers onboard the busiest services could also have more comfortable journeys if crowding is reduced. But what isn’t clear yet is how passengers will react and particularly if a greater number of cheaper fares will be available and succeed in getting more people on the trains and filling empty seats.
It appears that during what were ‘Off-Peak’ times tickets can now sometimes cost more than the old Off-Peak fare in return for less flexibility. And there is the chance that when all Advance fares have been sold that passengers wanting to travel on the very busiest services may now find the only option is the full Anytime fare, or travelling by car, coach or plane instead. In any circumstances where people may be asked to pay more for less they will need a lot of convincing that the other benefits outweigh the obvious and immediate disadvantages.
People will have understandable concerns about the pilot and the impact of removing the regulated ‘Off-peak’ ticket, especially when it’s not clear to passengers if the changes are intended to be revenue neutral or if passengers will pay more overall. It’s fair to say the pilot hasn’t received a warm welcome in all quarters. That may in part be due to customers having less flexibility than before once they’ve bought a ticket, particularly as the Semi-Flexible tickets are non-refundable unlike the previous Off-Peak fares.
We’ll be raising this with LNER to see if adjustments can be made to the pilot. It is hard to see how the fares being trialled could be rolled-out to shorter-distance routes – even as a trial – as we know that on many journeys passengers rely on the ‘Off-Peak’ ticket to give them flexibility and a guaranteed ‘walk-up’ option at a relatively affordable price.
This is why trialling any changes first is vital, to collect the evidence to show whether the change really is an improvement for passengers. We understand that a full evaluation of the two-year pilot will be published, including an interim evaluation after one year. We will be monitoring closely to see if the trial does indeed deliver better value for money tickets for passengers.
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