The familiar London Transport style payment for train fares, based on a PAYG model could be expanded to the rest of the South-East of England, under plans announced by the Department for Transport.
Although a number of railways that feed into London have their own smart ticketing systems, they are generally not compatible with TfL’s own service, and also the fares charged are usually fairly complicated.
The proposal is to review the ticket prices so that they can be charged pretty much at a flat-rate while offering the same fare-capping that London has on daily and weekly journeys.
The Rail Minister, Andrew Jones MP noted in the documentation that “rail passengers across the country look upon the pay-as-you-go schemes that operate in London with envy.”
But he adds that what is often overlooked is that the way fares in London are structured has been designed to complement the pay-as-you-go model, and those changes bring benefits in their own right too.
Simply adding smart tickets to the mix doesn’t fully realise the benefits of London’s fare structure where you pay by zones and per journey — with a daily and weekly cap on how much you can pay.
At the moment, the different types of tickets on sale make it harder for passengers to mix-and-match peak and off-peak travel, and a season ticket costs a fixed price for a week, month or year, which can disadvantage those who travel part-time.
An example being where someone outside London might travel in the morning rush-hour, but return off-peak, but the fare structure requires paying for a peak hours return. A simpler fares model could see people use PAYG to pay for just the type of trip they want, when they want it.
And that is the core of the consultation – yes to smart tickets, but its really about changing what people pay for train journeys than how they pay for them.
However, the overall revenue raised by the railway has to remain the same – so while some people will evidently benefit from lower ticket prices, others may have to rise in compensation if simpler fares doesn’t lead to an increase in off-peak travel.
The ability to make off-peak travel more appealing is undoubtedly a key aim of the project, as well as reflecting, and encouraging more flexible working practices.
If people can see a financial benefit to working from home a couple of days per week, then it’s likely that more people would do that — which in turn results in less overcrowding on the trains. But at the moment, it’s often no cheaper to buy three peak rate returns than it is to buy a week’s worth.
They are also looking at how to deal with the situation where a journey can be taken on two rival rail operators — who charge different rates. The move to PAYG could see both companies forced to charge identical fares, further reducing the complexity of railways in the eyes of occasional travellers.
Another unstated aim in the consultation also has to be cost-cutting. As has been seen in London, if people don’t need to buy tickets as often, then the requirement for staffing ticket offices fades away. If the national railway were to go contact less, with a predicable and easy to understand fares structure, then they could also start to look at ticket offices as a redundant feature.
If the consultation turns into action, then the rollout of the PAYG model would be phased to cover a zone around London, although the consultation does look at extending it out to Brighton, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford.
The map also includes the first wave of the extension of PAYG to National Rail stations on the Govia Thameslink Railway network, which is due to commence in early 2019 to Hertford North and Epsom, and to conclude with Luton Airport and Welwyn Garden City later in the year.
At the moment, the consultation is only looking at rail fares, but it could look at buses later on. That would deal with the oddity that exists in places such as Staines, where buses are part of TfL’s network, but the trains are not.
One thing that is certain though is that TfL’s Oyster system is unlikely to be the one used outside London. The system is not set up for the fare option needed, which is in part why TfL is pushing contactless card payments so heavily at the moment.
The consultation leans towards contactless bank cards, with paper tickets as a backup — and mobile barcodes for season tickets.
Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer at Transport for London said: “Pay as you go has helped revolutionise travel on Tube, rail and bus services across London, making them more convenient for all. We welcome this consultation into extending pay as you go across the rail network that surrounds London and continue to work with the DfT, South Western Railway and GTR to expand pay as you go to cover services to Epsom and Hertford North from early 2019.”
Reading the 47-page report and it’s clear that what sounds like a fairly dry attempt to expand the use of smart tickets could actually be a major shake-up of rail fares in the South-East of England, and a loss of autonomy over setting fares by the individual rail companies in favour of a regionally agreed set of prices which will remove odd vagaries in the system and make it much easier to understand.
That alone should make rail travel less daunting to people who make just occasional trips and worry about the complex fares structure in use today.
Dependent on the outcome of the consultation, by 2020, the government’s ambition is to see PAYG rolled out across more regional and urban commuter areas.
The consultation is open now, and closes on 1st May 2019.