Rail season tickets: Could ‘flexi season’ fares prove a dud?

·4-min read
Fare’s fair? Part-time commuters using Milton Keynes Central stand to benefit from flexi season tickets (Simon Calder)
Fare’s fair? Part-time commuters using Milton Keynes Central stand to benefit from flexi season tickets (Simon Calder)

On the eve of long-promised “flexi season” train tickets going on sale in England, The Independent can reveal that some part-time rail commuters will get no benefit.

From Monday 21 June, tickets go on sale that allow travel on any eight days out of 28 between two stations in England. Passengers can buy them for smartcards or smartphones, and they can be used from 28 June.

The aim is to cut rail fares for commuters who work from home for some of the week or are in part-time employment. As working patterns have changed, rail passenger numbers have collapsed; the most recent Department for Transport (DfT) figures show train usage at barely 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

The DfT is promoting flexi seasons as the first significant benefit for passengers of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, which is intended to reform the railways and in particular the chaotic fares system.

For passengers making the same journey at least two days per week, the aim is to provide a good-value alternative to buying individual “Anytime” day return or an existing season ticket that can be used throughout its validity.

Transport campaigners have broadly welcomed the scheme, though they say they will need to study the detail to verify that the discounts are meaningful. There have been complaints that the ticket “carnets” that flexi seasons will replace typically save only a small percentage.

The new flexible passes will give a discount of 20 per cent or more on a monthly season ticket. But so extreme are the variations in rail pricing that some commuters stand to save hundreds of pounds while others will be better off by continuing to buy individual day tickets.

On East Midlands Railway between Leicester and Nottingham, a monthly season costs £204.30. With a 20 per cent discount, the flexi season will cost £163.40. But occasional commuters buying eight separate round-trips would pay only £113.60 – almost £50 less.

The train operator says: “The new, national, flexi season ticket is designed to match modern working habits and provide passengers with greater savings on travel.”

It is scrapping its existing carnet ticket that allows 10 journeys on the same route within one month.

In contrast, between Stoke-on-Trent and Milton Keynes Central, the Anytime return fare – suitable for a working day – on Avanti West Coast is £190.80. A monthly season ticket with a 20 per cent discount applied will cost £611.70 – meaning someone using the flexi season for only four days in a month will save £150.

The DfT is known to be seeking to ensure that savings compared to existing options are available for all journeys. 

Silviya Barrett, head of policy for the Campaign for Better Transport, criticised the extreme variations in pricing, saying: “It’s unfair on those who get a smaller discount. It’s based on historical variations.

“We want a much simpler system that is easier to understand.”

Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who founded the Seat61.com international rail website, said: “For some long-distance inter-city routes, a classic season will remain the cheapest option even for two trips per week.”

“Indeed, as there is no fixed relationship between the cost of an Anytime return and a monthly season on a given route, it’s always worth checking the price difference between a season and the new flexi fare.

“Even if it costs slightly more, a classic weekly might be the better deal given that it allows unlimited additional trips at no extra cost, including at the weekend.”

Because the flexi season principle is based on days rather than individual journeys, it is unlikely to prove helpful to commuters who stay over during the week.

For example, some commuters travel to London on Monday, stay overnight, return home on Tuesday and repeat the exercise on Thursday and Friday.

They would use up the available days on a flexi season within two weeks, despite having made only four round trips.

Mr Smith summed up the flexi season as “intended as a quick win, for many commuters”, but believes the whole rail fares system is in need of reform.

“People need to be encouraged back onto trains,” he said. “A simpler all-one-way fares structure that’s easier to sell online has a major part to play, along with more logical and consistent pricing that avoids the need to split-ticket.”

Ticket splitting is the practice of legally exploiting the many anomalies in the present fares system to cut travel costs.

The DfT says Great British Railways, the body that is taking over coordination of rail infrastructure and operations, will oversee widespread fares reform.

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