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May 2019, London

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Clickety-split: the battle to reduce pain points in UK rail continues

Loco2 has launched a new solution to make split tickets for rail more consumer friendly, but the UK rail body RDG says price hacks are not a long-term solution

Split ticketing, the practice of breaking a journey down into two or more parts in order to get a better deal, isn’t new. But the reality, says Aurelie Butin, Director of Product & Service, Loco2, “is that because it is such a complex technology it has remained fairly niche”. With Pricehack, the technology that Loco2 has been developing for the past three years, Butin argues things are about to get simpler and better. Pricehack is expected to save consumers  up to 50% on tickets for 200-million journeys across Britain each year, but it is not without competition!  

“It's certainly not the only one,” says Train travel advocate and former Department for Transport (DfT) rail ticketing executive, Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61

There are a whole raft of dedicated platforms already offering split ticketing. Among those SplitTicketing, Ticketysplit, and Trainsplit, as well as rail platforms like the UK-based Trainline and fast-growing Trainpal, which was launched by the Chinese online travel agent Ctrip in 2017. According to Amy Wei, CEO of Ctrip International Train Ticketing, 70% of Trainpal customers have made use of their unique split-ticketing algorithm, which enables users to save as much as 90% on the fare. 

So far what has existed on the market is sub-optimal in terms of customer experience 

Aurelie Butin, Director of Product & Service, Loco2

Rail operators, like Virgin Trains, have also been developing solutions. Virgin announced in May that it is launching a mobile app, which will help passengers to take advantage of split ticketing.  

This is not surprising as price is a major issue for UK customers. A KPMG survey commissioned by the RDG, the British rail industry membership body, found that only one in three passengers were ‘very confident’ they bought the best value ticket for their last journey. 

Loco2, which was acquired by Voyages-scnf in 2017, and to date has been focused on booking rail to mainland Europe, understands that price is important. But it also understands that time-pressed customers want simplicity. 

“So far what has existed on the market is sub-optimal in terms of the customer experience,” says Butin, adding that Loco2 has been committed to building a simple user interface “that is great on both the front and back end.”  

Simplifying the split 

Pricehack seems to tick a number of boxes. “This solution is better than many as it also works with advance fares. Some don't,” says Smith. “They've also managed to get one seat reservation in the same seat (usually!) across multiple tickets, which amazed me! And it does the split test as part of the normal booking process, rather than as a special separate site or mini-site.”  

Another bonus, says Butin, is that the tickets will also be available on mobile devices. To date, one of the snags of split ticketing is that customers would need to collect physical tickets for each leg of the journey before travelling.  

Loco2 explains that the algorithm works out:  

  • A combination of tickets of sometimes a thousand or more per journey that is cheaper than the end-to-end  
  • The cheapest combination of tickets/discounts/railcards that a group can travel on, even if each individual is on a different ticket/fare/discount/railcard  
  • It also has knowledge of whether an alternative route would yield a cheaper overall price 

So far, only split ticket single fares are possible but it is, says Butin, “in our DNA to get people to ditch cars and use trains,” and the team is working on return journeys. Another plus for Loco2 is that UK travellers can now use split ticketing to save on journeys to mainland Europe.  

Loco2’s investment in Pricehack is a clear commitment to improving services for the UK domestic market, where there is plenty of opportunity. Fast-growing Trainpal, which launched in February 2018 with a small marketing budget and has seen month–on-month growth of 42.3%, has spotted this too. As Wei points out, UK train fares are the most expensive in the world, not to mention the most confusing. “There are over a thousand ticket types and over 55 million fare types,” she says, and this is confusing for Chinese travellers who are used to flat rates, with a fixed cost per mile; no up or down, no peak or off peak. As a regular rail user in the UK, Wei is left feeling “very uncertain wondering if this is the cheapest”.  

Building ‘hacks’ to the current fares system is no substitute for the root and branch reform of regulations needed to deliver the buying experience and range of fares people have told us they want 

Jacqueline Starr, chief operating officer, Rail Delivery Group

Jacqueline Starr, chief operating officer at the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, says that the rail industry supports innovations that improve things for passengers. She continues, however, that, “building ‘hacks’ to the current fares system is no substitute for the root and branch reform of regulations needed to deliver the buying experience and range of fares people have told us they want”. 

RDG conducted a survey and found that, in fact, regulatory change is needed because: 

  • 73% of respondents to RDG’s fares consultation said they wanted fares designed so that it is not necessary to have to split a ticket in order to get the best deal 
  • Split ticketing options are a poor experience for customers who want the system to work for them - one ticket with the best fare for their needs, and not vice versa (potentially 10s of tickets, which may not give them flexibility 
  • The complexity of the current system, together with anomalies, means that it may not be possible for any computer system to guarantee the cheapest fare for any given route 
  • The industry’s proposals are designed to build trust by introducing a simpler fare structure that guarantees the best fare. It shouldn’t be necessary for people to have to buy multiple tickets to get the best deal 
  • The industry’s proposals would also reform peak time restrictions, which would smooth out demand throughout the day, reducing overcrowding and enabling up to 80% of off-peak trains to have cheaper walk-up fares  

So, all this raises the question: will ticket splitting soon become a thing of the past and if so has Loco2’s investment been in vain? Not in short term. “The RDG wants the department of transport’s agreement to a major overhaul, but this is probably years off…if it happens at all,” says Smith.

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