Rail fares shake-up will ditch refunds and double some fees
The Times: April 24, 2008
Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent
Passengers will lose out from a decision by train companies to stop giving refunds for tickets bought in advance and to double the fee for changes to journey times.
The move is part of what the companies are calling a simplification of rail fares into three main types, which they claim will be easier to understand. More than a million leaflets will be distributed at stations from today explaining the changes but they fail to mention that many passengers will be worse off under the new national refunds policy.
First Great Western, Virgin, East Midlands Trains and TransPennine Express are among the companies that currently offer refunds on some advance tickets but will cease to do so. The no-refund policy comes into force today for tickets bought for travel from May 18.
The leaflets also fail to mention that the fee for changing journey times for return tickets bought in advance is doubling on many routes from £10 to £20, plus any difference in the price of the new journey. Train companies will make millions of pounds in extra profits because many people will throw away their tickets rather than try to change them.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) defended the new policy by saying that it was simply adopting a practice used by airlines but the passenger wathcdog Passenger Focus said that it was unfair to refuse refunds to passengers who were forced to book up to three months in advance to get affordable tickets. Anthony Smith, the watchdog’s chief executive, said that people often had very good reasons, such as bereavements, for changing travel plans.
“It is a real pity that the train companies have harmonised by going in the direction of harsher policies rather than enshrining good practice,” he said. “There should be some flexibility because of the degree to which people have to book in advance to get a cheap ticket. For a lot of tickets, it won’t be worth paying the fee to make the change. If a passenger has a good case, we are urging companies to be fair and give people a refund minus a reasonable administration fee.”
Barry Doe, a fares analyst, said that companies should give refunds when passengers produced a medical certificate giving the reason for not travelling. Some passengers will benefit from a new agreement by all companies to give railcard discounts on all standard class advance tickets. In another benefit, all advance ticket holders will also be allowed to change their tickets right up until the time of travel. Some companies, including Virgin, currently require changes to be made by 6pm the day before travel.
The new ticket types will be advance, off-peak and anytime. Advance tickets will replace the various other names for such tickets, including leisure advance, business advance, value advance and apex. From September 7, tickets bought on the day of travel will be either anytime or off-peak. Anytime fares, which can be used on any train, will replace open singles and returns. Off-peak tickets can be bought at any time but they carry restrictions on the time or day of travel.
The saver ticket, which is price-capped by the Government, will be reclassified as off-peak. This may make it easier for ministers to abolish the saver because they would be able to claim that, while prices were no longer protected, some level off-peak discount would still be offered. On some routes, where there are two off-peak fares, the cheaper ones will be called super off-peak. Existing names for these tickets, such as supersaver and pricebuster, will be abolished.
David Mapp, ATOC’s commercial director, said that companies would have different policies when peak restrictions applied. “This is about renaming and rebranding, not about changing travel restrictions or price levels. We have considered common time restrictions but the trouble is that the pattern of demand and the type of train service varies on different routes.”