Return train tickets are to be scrapped as part of a major overhaul of Britain’s rail industry.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper is expected to announce the end of two-way tickets later this week as he unveils plans for significant reforms, including the creation of a new public body to oversee the operation of trains and tracks. Great British Railways (GBR) will be an arms-length company which will also be responsible for ticketing and timetabling under the changes expected to be revealed on Tuesday.
Return fares will be phased out and replaced with single-leg pricing which will mean the price of both legs will be the same as the current two-way fares, according to the Telegraph. The move follows a trial scheme by LNER in 2020 which saw it drop return fares in favour of two single tickets.
At the time, LNER said the method would simplify and clarify ticket purchasing and make it easier for passengers to ensure they were buying the most suitable fare.
Harper is also expected to announce plans to adopt new ticketing technology that will see paper tickets phased out in favour of digital QR code tickets and Oyster card-style smartcard systems.
Plans for the creation of GBR were first announced under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021 but have stalled under a series of successive PMs and Transport Secretaries. However, Harper is expected to confirm that it will be established to take on responsibility for tickets and timetables currently handled by the Department for Transport.
The idea was first proposed by former BA chief executive Keith Williams, who conducted a “root and branch” review of the railways. He found a fragmented industry where fares were too high and disorganised, and where the objectives of Network Rail - which manages the infrastructure - and the train companies were at odds with each other. He proposed a central body to take on a “guiding mind” role.
The idea of this “Fat Controller” approach - inspired by Thomas the Tank Engine - was attacked by critics as amounting to nationalisation of the railways via the back door but Harper is thought to have moved away from a state heavy approach.
Why are return fares being dropped?
It is thought that scrapping return tickets will help simplify the buying process for passengers and could result in better value fares. According to the Rail Delivery Group there are 55 million fares offered in Britain at the moment, with passengers often struggling to compare costs and find the best deal.
Much of the country’s fare system is based on rules created by British Rail before the railways were privatised in the 1990s. This means that in many cases there is virtually no difference in price between return tickets and one-way fares. It is thought this puts some passengers off using trains for single-leg journeys and limits flexibility for travellers. Removing such confusion and expense could encourage more people to travel by train, it is thought.
Will journeys cost more?
The exact plans for single-leg fares have yet to be confirmed but it is believed that the changes should bring down the cost of single tickets so they cost the same or possibly less than existing return tickets for the same journey.
According to travel expert Simon Calder, the changes will largely affect off-peak single fares, which are currently the ones most similar in cost to a standard return. Calder says that the price of these tickets will be almost halved, to make them equivalent to half the current return fare. However, he warns that some anomolies may still exist which lead to some single fares increasing.
Overall, he expects the move to be “revenue neutral” for operators but says it could actually bring in more money for train firms if it encourages more people to travel by train.
The expected announcement comes as the country’s railways remain in turmoil. Two days of strike action by train drivers last week caused chaos for passengers in England and one union leader has warned industrial action could last for years. Mick Whelan of train drivers’ union Aslef said that negotiations with employers over pay and conditions were “going backwards”, a view echoed by Steve Montgomery of the Rail Delivery Group.
At the same time, Montgomery said the RDG was more hopeful of a settlement with the RMT, whose repeated strike action since June has brought 80% of the country’s trains to a standstill.