Flexible rail season tickets in England: are the savings any good?

Regular train users have given a decidedly lukewarm response to the launch of part-time season tickets in England this week. The government had promised big discounts for workers who are travelling less but, for many, the deal is no better than other options that were already available.

After wrestling with the issue for years, the Department for Transport has launched the flexi season ticket, which it hopes will get commuters back on the trains – if and when office life resumes in earnest. They can be used from Monday 28 June.

But rather than, as hoped, offering daily fares close to what commuters would already pay with the conventional annual season ticket, discounts have been dismissed by consumer groups as so disappointing they will only “drive more travellers back into their cars”.

One Brighton commuter told Guardian Money he would be better off buying existing tickets for his trips, while others have calculated they would save only £7 a year.

Our own research suggests that the previously available carnet tickets offered bigger discounts.

Equally, heading into the office after 9.30am, or using railcards for return trips, will offer workers much bigger savings.

The flexi tickets provide customers with eight days of travel in any 28 days, all between two named stations. Users pre-buy the journeys loaded on a smartcard, or via a mobile app, and use as required. Each return ticket runs up until 4.29am the following day, so users can travel home after midnight.

The Department for Transport says the tickets have been priced “between an anytime day return and a seven-day season ticket”, offering savings for commuters travelling during peak times two or three days a week.

It claims regular users could save as much as £350 a year using the new tickets.

Unlike standard season tickets, flexi tickets are not available in first class and cannot be used on Transport for London services, so commuters to the capital still need to pay on arrival.

Also, there is no cheaper off-peak option, so they will only be useful to those commuting at peak times.

Brighton railway station
The Department for Transport says flexi season tickets offer savings for commuters travelling during peak times two or three days a week. Photograph: Geoff Smith/Alamy

People who are employed outside the traditional nine-to-five working day will gain no benefit.

A Brighton-London flexi ticket for eight days’ travel in a 28-day period works out at £39.90 a day, compared with £16.61 for a full-time season ticket, or the walk-up anytime return of £56.40.

However, a regular traveller and Brighton resident, Andy Lord, says those buying an existing anytime single from Brighton to St Pancras, and an off-peak return using a Network Railcard (£30 for the year) will pay £39.40 a day, 50p less than the flexi option.

“A monthly season ticket ends up being better value even if you only travel three days a week,” he adds.

“The government’s headlines might have looked good and piqued people’s interest but these discounts alone will hardly encourage people back into offices.”

A commuter travelling from Stevenage to London, for example, going for the flexi option, will pay £177 upfront, the equivalent of £22.12 a day. This is compared with a walk-up peak-time return of £23.90 – £1.78 a day saving.

Users of the old peak-time carnet tickets, which offered a 10% reduction on the walk-up fare, will be annoyed to learn they will end up paying more because peak-time carnets have been scrapped and replaced with the flexi.

If commuters travel into London from Stevenage after 9.30am the fare falls to £15.90 return – or £13 a day if they travel after 10am and use a railcard.

One of the problems with the flexi ticket is that if commuters do not use all the tickets within the 28-day period, the refund to which they are entitled may not be as much as they expect.

That is because it is calculated from the difference between the price for the flexi season and the cost of an anytime return ticket for each day they travelled, minus an administration fee.

The National Rail website warns that if commuters have only one or two journeys left, they may find they are not entitled to get any money back.

Alice Ridley of Campaign for Better Transport said the savings offered are not what commuters were promised: “There’s a danger that people will change the way they commute and start driving, and we wanted flexible tickets to encourage people back onboard trains. We don’t think these tickets are going to do that or provide the savings that people had hoped for.”


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