‘Split tickets’ point the way to sensible rail fares

Search online for “Didcot dodge.” Actually, to save you the trouble, I’ve already done exactly that. It should lead to a 2018 article titled “Trains Are Slowly Getting Better, But Rail Fares Are Still a Mess.”

It begins: “Don’t you like the £105 top fare from Bristol to London? Our absurd pricing system saves you £43 by implementing the Didcot Dodge.”

As you can predict, the chaos continues: the savings for “splitting a ticket” increased by one pound. If you don’t know the technique, all you have to do is buy a ticket from Bristol to Didcot Parkway and from there to Paddington station in the capital, and make sure you get on a train that stops at the Oxfordshire junction (although no need to go down and back up).

This rail stunt is the best-known example of ticket splitting: exploiting the many anomalies built into the national fare structure. (London to Southampton rush hour commute? The key to saving money is Woking.)

Until the online age, splitting a ride was largely a minority sport, involving standing in line and waiting for the reservations clerk to print out an intricate series of tickets.

Thanks to ticketing apps, organizing a split ride has become easy, especially when the giant retailer, Trainline, has moved on. You will be familiar with the SpiltSave feature that automatically finds the best deal for you.

Effortless, but not necessarily painless. I depart frequently, but when I combine two or more advance tickets, seat reservations are almost always made on different cars.

So I was delighted to find a different provider that guaranteed split savings you can sit on, and was surprised to see that it was the London North Eastern Railway (LNER).

This is the state-owned train operator that connects London with Yorkshire, the North East of England and Scotland on the East Coast Main Line.

LNER promises: “The same great savings as a split ticket, but we do all the hard work, which means you can sit back and enjoy the great savings without any hassle.”

The operator has started testing a Smart Save offer on app sales that mimics Trainline, but with the added twist of guaranteeing the same seat.

LNER owns the inventory of each train and is therefore able to make this happen.

While it’s in a limited testing stage (I’ve had trouble finding more examples of savings), the move is just what we need. Not just so travelers in distress can make some savings during a cost of living crisis. And not just to counter yet another nonsense story about how flying from Newcastle via Spain to London was cheaper than a train to the capital, increasing the perception that rail fares are unaffordable. It is essential as a step on the road to one-tier pricing, as easyJet pioneered 27 years ago.

We now accept without question the concept that European air fares depend on day, time and demand. An overnight easyJet flight from Gatwick to Nice on Monday 18 July costs £29, but for the following Saturday lunchtime fares are nine times higher.

For a thriving and properly competitive railway, we need prices that encourage travel at times when space is plentiful and dampen demand when everyone wants to travel.

You might have the same nagging thought I do about the LNER move, applied to the company’s advance fares: the company is selling an A to B and B to C combo ticket for less than A to C. So, what? why not just cut the last one?

Still, LNER Smart Save deserves praise. The state operator is competing as an innovative upstart, providing the kind of disruption we really need on the rail to eliminate the absurd tangle of rail fares.

It remains to be seen whether ministers, particularly the chancellor and transport secretary, have the courage to carry through the fare reform that everyone agrees is desperately needed. The problem is that while many trips will be cheaper, other prices will go up.

As Didcot Dodge’s article concludes: “In the end, single-tier pricing, the only rational solution, will prevail. A politician brave enough to say so deserves a first-class return.”

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