A “level playing field” between train operators and independent retailers is needed in order to increase the ridership on UK railways and improve the competitiveness of the ticketing market.
That was the case made by rail company executives at the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group yesterday, where ministers and rail industry representatives heard from representatives from Virgin Trains Ticketing, the Independent Rail Retailers association, and Campaign for Better Transport.
Outlining how independent retailers can help grow the UK rail market, the speakers also addressed the stumbling blocks retailers face that prevent innovation in the industry and called for more regulatory certainty.
Ticketing and fares reforms
Top of the list was the need for parity and reform in rail fares, meaning that all operators and retailers would be able to offer passengers the same fares.
“Independent rail retailers are the shop window of the rail industry and we need to spend just as much time talking about the shop window as we do the products in the shop,” said Mark Plowright, director of Virgin Trains Ticketing.
“Rail retail has an essential role to play in boosting rail ridership. There is still not a level playing field between operators and independent retailers – especially not smaller retailers. Open-access competition on passenger services has been shown to work, and a form of open-access retail would give retailers more confidence and the ability to invest; stimulating growth, driving innovation, and ultimately lead to better choices for passengers.”
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Currently, independent retailers are prevented from selling certain fares, leaving passengers confused about how to get the best deal on their journey, and frustrated that they can’t easily access Delay Repay. This can be especially frustrating given that rail fares recently rose by 5.9% in England and Wales.
“Buying a train ticket needs to be made much easier. Passengers have lost faith in the current system, which is convoluted, time-consuming, and provides no guarantee that they are being sold the cheapest available fare for their journey,” said Michael Solomon Williams, campaigns manager at Campaign for Better Transport.
“We are calling for fares and ticketing reform to put passengers at its heart and ensure that the ticketing system encourages more people to travel by train by making the process of buying a ticket simpler, fairer and more affordable. Independent retailers have a very important role to play in this process.”
Incentive for investment
The group also noted that clearer detail is needed as to how independent retailers will be remunerated and incentivised to invest in the industry, given that these retailers offer the rail network a cost-effective way to trial and develop innovative new technology and services that will benefit all passengers.
“Independent retailers have a laser-like commercial focus on driving rail ticket sales through investment, innovation, and marketing,” added Alistair Lees, chair of the Independent Rail Retailers and managing director of Assertis.
“Rail finances are in crisis, and we need to work together to plug the gap by winning new customers to rail. That means simplifying ticketing, creating a level playing field that encourages competition, and embracing the private sector to drive down costs.”
At the annual Bradshaw address last month, Transport Secretary Mark Harper showed his support for private sector investment in the rail industry and its role in helping to maximise competition, innovation, and revenue growth.
“We welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals in the Bradshaw address last month for more private sector involvement in rail,” added Lees. “We call upon the industry to work in partnership with independent retailers to deliver quick wins right now. There’s no time to lose.”
Improving collaboration between operators and retailers was highlighted in January by Liz Emmott, director of global distribution & business solutions at Trainline Partner Solutions, as one of the key factors for the rail sector this year.
“Partnerships between operators and third-party ticket retailers have the ability to impact the whole value chain,” Emmot told Railway Technology.
“The technology now exists to overcome the historically fragmented data that challenges the rail sector, enabling it to take a more sophisticated and collaborative approach to serve the changing needs of customers.”