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  1. Analysis
July 18, 2019

Planes, trains and flawed reasoning: Virgin’s airline-style ticketing

Virgin Trains recently proposed reforming the UK rail industry through the introduction of airline-style, reservation-only ticketing on long-distance services. This could lead to less standing on trains, but deep down smacks of impracticality.

By Ross Davies

“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” once said Paul Theroux, the celebrated travel writer.

As a great rail enthusiast, Theroux’s reasoning is that anyone should be able to hop on a train whenever they feel like it, either in the spirit of expediency or spontaneity.

Of course, for some travelling on the UK rail network, a protracted spell on the rattler can be the ultimate test of endurance. Long journeys are rarely fun when spent standing in gangway or by a poorly tended toilet. Such experiences leave passengers disillusioned with rail as a means of public transport.

It is precisely for this reason that Virgin Trains recently proposed the idea of an airline-style ticketing model for Britain’s railways, in which a reservation-only system is introduced, meaning every passenger is guaranteed a seat.

Customer satisfaction: What airline-style fares could mean for passengers

According to Virgin, such a system would be of enormous benefit to both passengers and the rail sector at large. The operator claims it would lead to not only an improved customer experience, but could create greater competition and reduced fares.

“Virgin believes offering passengers a fixed single fare would strip away the confusion of ticket-buying.”

The reform forms part of Virgin’s contribution to ongoing debate regarding UK rail’s future, as underscored in the government-requested Williams Rail Review. The aim of the year-long review, launched last September and led by Keith Williams, is to create a set of recommendations on the future of rail in this country.

Williams has promised a root-and-branch reform to address “a loss of public confidence” in the country’s rail network. He is also seeking an alternative to a franchising system that many have long denounced as not being fit for purpose.

Virgin believes offering passengers a fixed single fare, as opposed to a mishmash of prices according to peak times, would strip away the arbitrariness and confusion of ticket-buying. Furthermore, it could also generate greater investment from the private sector, currently sorely wanting, by allowing operators to focus on long-term customer satisfaction rather than busying themselves with short-term operating contracts.

Virgin woes: a proposal for tomorrow from yesterday’s operator?

But is anyone listening? Virgin might have over 20 years of running long-distance journeys, but its recent history has been one of failure. Earlier in the year, its joint venture partner Stagecoach was disqualified from bidding for the West Coast Partnership franchise by the Department for Transport, leading owner Richard Branson to question whether the operator will even be in existence by the end of the year.

“What Virgin is proposing is absolute madness,” argues UK rail historian and journalist Christian Wolmar. “They’re on the verge of being booted off the railway because, even after 20 years, they still don’t understand it.”

“I don’t really see the point in making getting on these trains more of a hassle for passengers.”

Wolmar’s gripe is simple: as forms of transport, trains and planes cannot be equated. On the whole, planes flying to a particular destination, perhaps two or three times a day, have far less capacity than a city-to-city express train service (for instance, there are on average four trains from London to Birmingham every hour).

“These trains, which each have the capacity of a couple of jumbo jets, are rarely full, too, barring slightly off-peak times,” claims Wolmar. “So, I don’t really see the point in making getting on these trains, which are regular and have tonnes of space, more of a hassle for passengers.

“What passengers want is really quite simple, we want cheap trains that you can get on instantly and for which you don’t have to book.”

Straitjacket: reservations remove flexibility

Mark Smith, a rail expert who runs the Man in Seat 61 blog, also believes Virgin’s logic is essentially flawed. This is mainly down to the fact the people tend to make longer journeys on the UK rail less frequently than they do shorter trips, the latter often requiring little pre-planning and less willingness to commit to a specific time.

“Shorter trips are made more frequently with greater spontaneity – and most crucially of all – with a need for greater flexibility,” he says. “In removing this flexibility, Virgin’s proposals potentially remove one of rail greatest advantages over air and coach. And on routes when where the main competitor is the car, the ultimate in mobility, I am not convinced this is the right approach.”

“Unions have been unequivocally scathing of the idea of airline-style ticketing.”

And while Smith appreciates that “nobody likes standing”, he believes the alternative brought about by an all-reserved system would require a “significant cultural change” in the UK.

“Having experienced the all-reserved networks in France, Italy and Spain, as well as the traditionally ticketed networks in Germany, Austria, Benelux and Switzerland, the former can be something of a straitjacket to use,” he says. “The latter provide far more freedom.”

Scepticism has also come from other corners. While supportive of any measure to bring about greater competition on longer routes, independent passenger watchdog Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith argued that “the choice to stand or wait should be the passenger’s, not the train company’s.”

Not surprisingly, the unions have been unequivocally scathing of the idea of airline-style ticketing. Mick Cash, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, dismissed the proposal as “an excuse to jack up prices”.

Unforthcoming: UK rail’s inability to attract private investment

This year marks 25 years since John Major’s conservative government set the ball rolling on the privatisation of UK rail in the hope that swathes of investment from the private sector would soon follow.

“The notion that this could create any sense of competition, after all this time, is impractical.”

Given how unforthcoming private investment has been in the last quarter of a century, it seems unlikely that the a ban on standing on long journeys is set to alter the status quo. “The notion that this could create any sense of competition, after all this time, is impractical,” says Wolmar.

Virgin might have brought something to the table of Keith Williams, and that shouldn’t be disregarded entirely out of hand. But it seems unlikely that the operator’s proposal will prove to be the answer to the UK’s network’s problems.

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