If on a whim I decided to go to Leeds on a weekday morning it would cost me £96.80 standard class to catch the off peak 11.05 am. If I could delay my journey for a month I could buy a ticket on the same train for just £22.95. If I went on the 11.35 in a month’s time it would cost me just £14.60.
If I wanted to go to Manchester it would cost me £80.60 standard class. If I wanted to go after 3.20pm it would cost me £164.50. If I book in advance to go to Manchester off peak in November it would cost me just £20.
Rail fares are bizarre. Half of them are regulated, mainly to try to prevent the rail industry overcharging for scarce commuter seats into London at the peaks. Regulation has not stopped the imposition of high fares on popular commuter services. The railway gives people huge discounts for buying tickets well in advance, charges the traveller buying a ticket on the day high prices, and imposes a simple cliff edge on fares with big increase in fares at around 3pm and a big drop around 7pm, with a similar peak in the morning.
This system leaves commuters feeling they pay more than their fair share of a heavily subsidised industry. It leads to heavily overcrowded trains on popular routes on the first train after the ending of the peak fare, and still leaves the main commuter lines with insufficient capacity. It clearly fails to maximise revenues or sell the many empty seats I see on many of the trains I use outside the London and Reading area commuter services.
It is curious that the very low advance fares are not more successful in selling off peak seats on long distance trains. Maybe they are insufficiently known. Maybe there is simply too much capacity on these routes. It is also curious that many pay the high single and return fares charged if you buy on the day of travel, given the high premium charged for late purchase.
What seems likely is a revised pattern of fares and service provision could improve seat sales, reduce costs, and give commuters a fairer deal. Can the rail industry rise to that challenge?
The complex system which fails to deliver enough seats on busy routes at popular times and provides many unsold empty seats elsewhere is a reminder of how price regulation can both be well intended and unsuccessful. We need more competition in the railway, to innovate on services and bring in more popular fares and services.