The pressing need to simplify railway ticketing has been a long running theme on Britain’s fragmented network, but nothing tangible ever seems to happen, and we continue to live in a crazy world where getting the cheapest fare for my most recent day return journey involved buying no less than four separate sets of tickets.
My Sunday trip from Haslemere to Cardiff – for the Wales vs. Italy Six Nations rugby international – would have cost me £55.50 (using a railcard) had I opted for the cheapest direct ticket, a super off-peak return (not via London), travelling to Guildford, then on to Reading and from there directly to Cardiff.
But checking with a split-ticketing website knocked more than a third off the fare, when I was able to make the return journey for just £36.85 by buying four separate day returns: Haslemere to Blackwater (£8.30), Blackwater to Didcot Parkway (£6.45), Didcot to Swindon (£7.65) and Swindon to Cardiff Central (£14.45).
Pretty much every train calls at Blackwater and Swindon, so the only minor constraint in using my array of day returns was making sure that the trains I caught stopped at Didcot Parkway, which was no real hardship.
Years ago, before one of the first attempts to end our ludicrously complex ticketing system, we used to have long-distance day returns, but these were abolished in the name of simplification and replaced by saver and super saver fares, that then became off-peak and super off-peak returns.
Having once travelled from King’s Cross to Edinburgh (also for a Wales rugby international) with a day return ticket that allowed me kip down in a steam-heated compartment on the 00.02 newspaper train to Newcastle on a Saturday morning (no 09.30 restriction at weekends), before a 90-minute stop-over and then the first train of the day from Newcastle to Edinburgh at about 07.00, I could never see what was wrong with long-distance day returns!
There have been endless promises by Governments, ATOC and now the Rail Delivery Group, to simplify train fares, but all we end up with is even greater layers of complexity, inconsistent rules applied by different operators to the time when advance purchase tickets can be bought and used, and increasingly draconian restrictions on when the most attractive off-peak fares apply.
I count myself lucky to have the time and patience to find the cheapest fare, but despair at how so many leisure travellers will be bamboozled into paying more than they should, or be ripped off, by buying inflexible and sometimes unnecessary advance purchase tickets, which they then find the need to change at considerable expense.
A duty of what is called “impartial retailing” is supposed to mean that every ticket office in the land will offer you the cheapest fare for the journey you wish to book. I wonder, though, how many of them would ever suggest buying four separate sets of tickets for one fairly straightforward day return journey? Precious few, I suspect.