Last Friday, Guardian Weekly caught up with Richard Gibson, head of communications for CrossCountry, the British train operating company owned by Arriva UK Trains. Gibson’s interview on modern British train fares was almost as puzzling and confusing as their pricing structure!
Guardian Weekly (GW): I tried to book a CrossCountry train journey from St Austell to Macclesfield. The only available ticket was £147.50, eight weeks ahead. Train companies boast about low advance fares – the trade-off for pricey walk-on fares. What’s going on?
Richard Gibson (RG): Not all journeys have an advance fare. We set the fare between St Austell and Birmingham, so we can offer an allocation of advance fares for that part of the journey. But Birmingham to Macclesfield is set by another operator.
GW: But both segments of the journey are aboard CrossCountry trains.
RG: The way fares are set, we cannot provide allocation of advance fares on the second part.
RG: Because that is the way the system is set.
GW: Who sets the system?
RG: The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc). They would be quite happy to explain the national fare structure.
GW: I then booked the two parts of my journey separately on your website. I bought one ticket from St Austell to Birmingham, and one from Birmingham to Macclesfield, on the same CrossCountry trains I’d been quoted £147.50 for. The new price was £65. That’s £80 cheaper.
GW: How can you justify that?
RG: If you choose to buy multiple tickets for a simple journey, you may find it’s considerably cheaper. But you’re not getting the guarantee of the service all the way through. If your train from A to B was delayed, and you missed the train from B to C, you’d have to buy a new ticket.
GW: Do you think that’s a fair way to treat your customers?
RG: This is the industry system and you’d need to contact Atoc.
GW: Do you think it’s fair that one person could pay £147.50, but another could split the tickets and pay £65 for the same journey on the same trains?
RG: I think the fare of £147.50, at less than 50p per mile, is a fair price for the 300-mile journey.
GW: But in the end I paid just £65!
RG: I think that £147.50 to travel from St Austell to Macclesfield is a fair price for the journey.
GW: You keep telling me it’s fair, but when people read this they’re going to say: it’s absurd and you’re ignoring my question. Why can’t CrossCountry write on their ticket site, “It may be cheaper to book your journeys separately.”
RG: Because not every customer wishes to do what you’ve tried to do.
GW: Not every customer wishes to save money? It is a hassle, but you should still tell them. Why won’t you?
RG: Because that would be confusing to customers.
GW: I think customers would like to save money.
RG: I think we disagree on what we think our customers would prefer.
GW: In an ideal world, would the fare system be different?
RG: I have no idea what an ideal world would look like, I’m afraid.
GW: Do you think CrossCountry should be transparent about the fact they can’t control all of their ticket prices?
RG: I don’t think it would be useful for customers to put a section on our website to explain how the fare system works. I think it’s providing a level of complication.
GW: I think the customers are grown up enough to understand it.
RG: I tell you what, I will pass your suggestion on to the revenue team and the commercial director to see if they are able to do anything with it.
GW: Please do.