Returning to the office part-time could become cheaper thanks to new flexible train ticket proposals presented to the government.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has asked rail companies for suggestions on creating ‘part-time’ season tickets, ahead of expected changes in commuter behaviour.
Many office workers are likely to be working from home for at least part of the week after the pandemic, which means standard subscriptions don’t offer good value for money.
Here, which one? looks at what the new proposals include and how much you could save with existing flexible rail pass systems.
Why are Flexi subscriptions necessary?
Traditional passes allow you unlimited travel seven days a week on a certain route at a discount. An annual ticket will usually give you the equivalent of 12 weeks of free travel – a significant discount for daily commuters. But for part-time commuters, it costs more than just buying a ticket each day.
With working patterns set to change post-lockdown, the DfT is working with train operators to create tickets that offer discounts to people traveling part-time or on a flexible basis.
Many rail companies will not be able to sell flex tickets without DfT approval, due to the way the franchise system works.
A DfT spokesman said: ‘Although our top priority is rightly to combat the spread of coronavirus, we know that in the long term the outbreak is likely to affect how we move around.’
“We are always working at the pace of the industry to examine how we can help ensure that part-time and flexible commuters receive better value and more convenient options. We look forward to receiving proposals from the rail companies shortly.
“Our ambition before this crisis was to deliver better travel and better value for passengers, and that commitment is unwavering.”
What’s on offer?
We reached out to several major rail operators to ask about their flexible ticket offerings. Most are keeping the details a secret, but we know some details.
Great Western Railway (GWR)
GWR runs trains in the south and west of England, as well as in Wales. It confirmed that it offered two types of flexible tickets:
- Three days of travel in seven days
- 12 days of travel in 28 days
Naturally, it would be ideal if you were in the office three days a week or 12 days a month (about half of each working week). However, we do not know anything about the price of these tickets at this time.
Northern, which serves more than 500 stations in the north of England, has offered to sell 10 tickets for the price of nine to be used within six months. Commuters would load these tickets onto their “smart” cards and could buy 10 more when needed.
It’s cheaper than buying individual tickets each day as you need them, but it may not offer the same level of discount as full-time memberships.
This ticket is already being tested on a route between Leeds and Harrogate, and Transport for the North plans to roll out this flexible ticket more widely.
Which? understands that some proposals cover technology upgrades to allow more stations to accept smart cards or e-tickets.
The Rail Delivery Group coordinates the proposals on behalf of the rail companies. Its director of nations and regions, Robert Nisbet, told Which? :
“Rail companies fully understand that the way people work and travel is changing and new ticket types are needed to reflect this.
“We are working with the Department for Transport on proposals for flexible season tickets and will be making suggestions on how this might work very soon, while continuing to push for far-reaching regulatory reform of the entire fare system. “
Flexible subscriptions that you can already buy
The DfT could announce a new subscription model when it reviews proposals, but if you’re already returning to the office part-time, you have a few options.
Several train operators we spoke to said they were already working on improving their flexible ticket options before the pandemic hit. The DfT itself announced it was working with Govia Thameslink Railway on a trial that would bring new flexible tickets to the Southern network earlier this year.
Even so, you still can’t get flex tickets anywhere in the country, and they still rarely offer savings that rival full-time passes. Here is an overview of what is available:
What are they?
Most flexible ticket offers from the rail networks are currently Carnet offers.
A carnet ticket offer is where you buy a bundle of tickets (sometimes called a “logbook” or “booklet”) all at once with a discount to use when you need them.
Northern’s Flexible Smart Ticket, which gives you 10 trips for the price of nine, works like this. It is already available if you are traveling on the line between Leeds and Harrogate.
East Midlands Railway offers a similar arrangement, selling 10 or 20 journey season tickets with a 5% discount on commuter journeys to and from Derby, Leicester and Nottingham.
Great Northern and Thameslink sell booklet tickets in booklets of five or 10 at a 10% discount. ScotRail also sells them on 28 of its routes at the same discount rate.
Greater Anglia offers a FlexiPass ticket allowing you to purchase bundles of five to 50 tickets at a reduced rate of 5-10%.
How much could you save?
Although carnets may be more beneficial than buying a round trip each day, full-time commuters get a better deal with regular season passes.
Take Northern’s Flexible Smart Ticket. It costs £93.60 between Harrogate and Leeds. This equates to £9.36 each way.
A weekly pass on the same course costs £42.90. If you used it for all seven days it would cost £6.13 each way. Even if you only used it five days out of seven, you’d pay £8.58 return.
Standard annual subscriptions offer 52 weeks of travel for the price of 40. That’s a 25% discount as opposed to the 10% that carnet deals tend to offer. It might not sound that different, but it all adds up when you spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on travel each year.
We may see bigger discounts on carnet tickets in the future. South Western Railway told us that one of its proposals to the DfT is an adapted version of its Carnet offer.
Other flexible tickets
The Liverpool Merseyrail underground network offers a flexi-ticket, granting three days of travel over seven days. It’s not designed to save you money, as it costs the same as three standard round trips.
However, this will save you from having to go to a ticket office multiple times, which will help with social distancing.