Government's rail reform plan unveiled including proposal to scrap return train tickets

If you've ever thought that rail tickets are over complicated and over-priced, the government says it's listening. Consumer Editor Chris Choi on what the changes could mean

"Fundamental reform" on Britain's rail services could spell the end of return tickets and the introduction of demand based pricing.

Railways in the UK are “not fit for purpose” and “financially unsustainable”, according to Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who set out plans to simplify the system in a speech at the annual George Bradshaw address in central London.

The Cabinet minister said he wants private companies to be involved “not just in running services but in maximising competition, innovation and revenue growth right across the industry”.

In a scathing assessment of UK rail, he said: “The railways, quite frankly, aren’t fit for purpose.

“Currently mired in industrial action, routinely letting passengers and freight customers down, and historically unable to deliver major improvements at good value for the taxpayer.

“Britain is yearning for a modern railway that meets the needs of the moment.”

Here are the key announcements made by Mr Harper as he unveiled the rail plan on Tuesday.

Return tickets to be scrapped?

Mr Harper said single leg pricing – where a single fare will always be half the cost of a return – will be rolled out across the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) network.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper says the UK railway system is not fit for purpose. Credit: PA

He said he wanted to end scenarios in which an off-peak single between Durham and London, for example, costs just £1 less than a return.

The Department for Transport said: "As a result of these reforms, many one-way fares will be almost halved."

It comes after a successful trail on the train operator in 2020, however it is not yet clear how much the scheme would be expanded.

Mr Harper said: "After LNER’s successful single leg pricing trial, we’ll extend it to other parts of the LNER network from the Spring.... And then carefully consider before extending more widely."

Demand based pricing

Mr Harper announced plans to trial a system through which fares on some LNER services will fluctuate depending on demand.

The government said this will help "better manage capacity while also raising revenue".

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Demand based pricing relaxes the outdated rules for setting fares that resulted in many busy trains being “off peak” and quiet trains were “peak” leading to excessive crowding.

It is not yet clear exactly how the scheme will work or where it will be rolled out.

Pay-As-You-Go ticketing

The transport secretary also unveiled plans to roll out Pay-As-You-Go ticketing across the South East, which will enable travellers to pay for journeys by tapping in and out with contactless cards.

Mr Harper said: "We have committed to extending tap-in tap-out pay-as-you-go ticketing on rail to additional stations in regional and urban areas, including stations in the North."

What's the matter with Britain's railways?

Mr Harper told the audience that the coronavirus pandemic “has made a bad problem worse”, with season ticket sales at just 28% of pre-virus levels.

He said: “The impact on the industry’s bottom line has been stark, with revenue around £125-175 million lower each month as costs keep rising year on year.

“Any other industry would have collapsed years ago.

“But the railways have only survived due to the public purse – the source of over 70% of income over the past two years, at a cost of £1,000 per household.

“I won’t mince my words: operating the railways is now financially unsustainable.”

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Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: “Whichever ticket you buy, passengers are paying more for less under the Conservatives’ broken rail system.

“Thirteen years of failure has seen fares soar, more services than ever cancelled, while failing operators continue to be handed millions in taxpayers’ cash.

“The next Labour government will put passengers back at the heart of our railways, and build the infrastructure fit for the century ahead, unlocking jobs and growth.”

England’s regulated fares, which include season tickets on most commuter journeys, some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys and flexible tickets for travel around major cities, will increase by up to 5.9% from March 5.

Analysis of Office of Rail and Road data by the PA news agency found the equivalent of one in 13 services was cancelled during the four weeks to January 7, representing the worst reliability in records dating back to April 2014.

This covered a period when operators were badly affected by an overtime ban introduced as part of industrial action while severe weather also caused disruption.