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Rail commuters’ anger at flexi fare pricing

Part-time rail commuters returning to the office as Covid rules ease are calling for an urgent overhaul of ticket pricing: they are annoyed that their cheapest option is to buy an expensive annual season ticket, in spite of the government’s pledge to make fares more flexible.

The Department for Transport last year launched new flexi season tickets for passengers in England travelling two and three days a week, in response to a growing culture of hybrid working.

With many people still working from home until recently, thousands of commuters are only now starting to grasp the problems with this new system.

The smartphone tickets, which allow travel on any eight days in a 28-day period between two stations, were advertised as “potentially saving” hundreds of pounds against daily and season fares.

But workers commuting three days a week complain that eight passes within 28 days is not enough, since they would burn through them within two and a half weeks and then need to buy another.

Over the course of the year, they would need to buy a total 18 flexi tickets, which can prove a costlier option than other types of season ticket.

Analysis by the Financial Times shows this option is more expensive than buying an annual ticket on 14 out of 25 popular commuting routes.

In some cases it is significantly dearer. From Reading to London, commuters would pay £43.90 per day with a flexi ticket, compared with £31.18 per day with an annual season ticket. 

An annual ticket would involve a much bigger initial outlay, at £4,860, but over a year buying 18 flexi tickets at £351.20 each would cost even more, at a total £6,321.60.

Other routes with flexi tickets offering poor value for three day commuters include Brighton to London — £12.21 dearer than an annual season ticket a day, and Haywards Heath to London, £8.51 a day more expensive.

For those living in Brighton and Reading, the flexi pass is the fourth cheapest option, with annual, monthly and weekly returns all working out cheaper.

Emily Yates, co-founder of the Association of British Commuters, says: “The so-called ‘flexi tickets’ are a poor value, inflexible and high risk purchase. Because there is no price capping, commuters could end up paying much more than they need to over the course of the month. 

“The only conclusion is that flexi tickets are a manipulative pricing trap, designed to upsell passengers back to season tickets.”

The Rail Delivery Group has hinted that it may review ticket pricing © Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Brighton commuter Sally McColgan, head of human resources for a travel company in London, would like to commute three days a week, but instead chooses to travel two days a week off-peak due to the lack of flexible fare options.

She says: “I used to commute three days a week with an annual season ticket and for years I lobbied for more flexible options but there were none on offer.

“Then when the pandemic happened and the government announced the new flexi ticket I was so excited for the savings, but then hugely disappointed as it made absolutely no difference. Pretty much all the other season tickets are better value.

“I don’t know anyone in Brighton who uses the flexible season ticket — they’re a waste of time and the whole system needs to be reviewed.”

The Brighton Line Commuters group says: “While efforts to provide the commuter with flexible ticket options are to be applauded, there needs to be more and varied elements of travel provision, such as including more journeys in a 28-day period, and a suitable reduction in the cost for those who were and continue to be regular commuters.” 

Danielle Godfrey, from Bicester, Oxfordshire, is an executive assistant to a university director. She says: “It seems wrong that a seven-day weekly pass from Bicester to London costs £136.60, whereas the new eight-day flexible pass costs £414.10. That’s a lot more for only one day’s additional travel.

”Essentially, you can buy three weekly passes, allowing for 21 days of travel, for £409.80 — £4 less than the new flexi ticket which allows only eight days of travel.”

She has now given up on the idea of flexible working and commutes in every weekday. She adds: “My sister is working one week on and one week off to get around the problem, but she had to ask for special permission from her work to do so. The whole system is useless and needs to be overhauled.”

The Department for Transport has pledged that flexi tickets will save a minimum of 20 per cent on the cost of a monthly season ticket.

There are no flexi tickets available within the Oyster card travel area because these routes already have “tap in, tap out” ports and price caps to ensure the best deal.

Responding to the FT’s findings, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents Britain’s train operators, hinted that the pricing system may soon be reviewed.

It said: “We know that many commuters want the freedom and flexibility to divide their time between home and the office. 

“That’s why, with government, we introduced Flexi Season tickets, which provide better value to the majority of people travelling into work two or three days a week.

“To make it easier for people to buy a good value ticket, we want to work with government to change the underlying fares regulations. This could lead to a better range of fares to suit today’s travellers.”

The Department for Transport said: “Flexible season tickets are part of the customer-focused reforms that make up our Plan for Rail and reflect the changing patterns of travel that have been accelerated by the pandemic.

“Passengers are returning to the railways but there remain major changes in how people are commuting, the rail industry is adapting to some of the biggest upheavals we have seen in a lifetime.”

Great Western Railway said: “On a minority of routes, traditional season tickets already offer significant discounts for three day a week commuters, when compared to the cost of the peak return fare.

“In these cases, passengers may find better long-term value through purchasing monthly or annual season tickets, rather than multiple Flexi Season ticket bundles.”

To find the best value option for a commute, passengers can use the National Rail’s season ticket calculator, where they can enter the number of days per week they will be travelling. The cheapest option comes up first. 

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