In May this year, Uber launched a partnership with Virgin Trains that enables passengers to purchase a ride from their doorstep to any destination in the UK via a combination of taxi and train services.
The move, which Virgin Trains says is an attempt to encourage travellers to take trains instead of their cars, is an opportunity to test the impact a door-to-door ticketing formula could have on the UK’s rail fares system.
The need to update the country’s ticketing system has been on the agenda for a while. Most recently, train operators’ union the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and passenger watchdog Transport Focus joined forces to launch a consultation on the issue.
Customers were asked to express their opinion on how the rail ticketing system is run and choose from a range of options of what they think needs to change and how. The results of the consultation will be presented to the UK Government this autumn and could help pave the way for a much-awaited reform in the rail industry.
An outdated system
With 55 million different fares currently available, industry bodies are urging ministers to simplify ticketing and end anomalies like split ticketing, which can make it cheaper and more convenient to buy several tickets for a journey instead of a single one.
“Current rail fare regulations have remained largely unchanged since they were introduced in 1995 and assume customers will buy their ticket by visiting a ticket office,” explains RDG’s head of fares and retail support Andy Wakeford. “Further layers have been added over this time through individual franchise agreements and little or nothing has been taken away.
“This means that long-standing anomalies are becoming locked in, resulting in bigger problems for customers, and there are now around 55 million different fares. Rail fare regulations have also failed to keep pace with the rise of smartphone technology or how people work and travel today, with part-time working and self-employment having increased by over a third in 22 years.”
According to Transport Focus head of policy Mike Hewitson, the problem also lies with the lack of a range of simple, cost-effective yet diversified options that better suit passengers, especially regular travellers.
“Part of the problem is that some of the existing technology doesn’t explain the difference between the types of tickets very well,” Hewitson says. “The Internet is good at that but if you try to buy from a ticket vending machine for a journey you’re not familiar with and you’ve got choices, it’s quite hard to find out what the difference is between those tickets.”
Passenger needs are changing and the industry needs to conform to modern working patterns, with fares that accommodate those who work part-time or over the weekend, outside of traditional working hours. “It’s complicated, confusing and doesn’t quite match the way people travel today, therefore there is a case for reform,” he adds.
Intermodal fares for phone-reliant travellers
As travel options change, both Transport Focus and RDG agree that the ticketing system needs to be modernised and simplified.
Within this framework, one of the options is to group together fares from different transport modes into one single ticket, allowing travellers to plan a door-to-door journey.
Despite being in the early stages of development, this intermodal system is currently being experimented in different places around Europe with encouraging results.
Door-to-door ticketing is also listed among the possible options in RDG’s consultation and could become a reality in the coming years.
As Hewitson explains: “It’s wrong just to look at the rail journey in isolation, everyone has to get to and from the station and, if you can knit public transport together better, then you will have more potential use of public transport.”
Italian state railway FS Italiane, for example, recently launched its Nugo app, which allows users to plan their journey throughout the country using one ticket that covers all required modes. The app has been operational for about a month and at the time of writing had been downloaded by over 100,000 users.
Could the UK pave the way?
Back in the UK, Virgin Trains and Uber have joined forces to test this system on selected routes. While no concrete figures on its performance have been released yet, a spokesperson for Virgin Trains said that “the goal is to make things as easy as possible and in the future potentially connect all means of transport, from trains and cars to taxis and bikes”.
A similar scheme is currently being trialled in the West Midlands, where travellers can use an app called Whim, which combines several journey types, from public transport to taxis, cars and city bikes.
Whether trialled in small local communities or across an entire nation, the aim of these schemes is always the same: to simplify customer experience through convenient fares and digitalisation.
According to Whim CEO and founder Sampo Hietanen, the app was developed with this concept in mind. “If you give too many options, people will get lost, so we have something closer to what you pay for your monthly public transport, and then we have the pay-as-you-go option and a totally unlimited option, which includes everything, even the access to cars,” he explains.
The app, which aims to reduce the use of privately owned cars in the West Midlands, will now be extended to Birmingham, with a view to launching nationwide if successful.
Hietanen explains: “One of the learnings in Birmingham is that the subscription needs to be totally mobile – people just simply do not accept anything less anymore. They are expecting a lot from digital services nowadays and I think in many ways the transport sector is lacking behind the expectations at the moment.”
The Whim app was launched in the West Midlands less than a year ago, but its creators are already preparing to expand across a bigger geographic area. Similar expansion plans are being considered by FS Italiane, which, after a month of trialling its Nugo app, has seen its user base grow substantially and is now contemplating partnerships with airlines and other international travel operators to take the service to the next level.
With the prospect of an update to the UK’s ticketing system looming and apps like Nugo and Whim planning to expand, door-to-door journeys could soon become a reality and bring a much needed innovation to the country’s ticketing system.