Rail travellers in England have a new ticket option: a “flexi season” that aims to improve value for passengers who commute intermittently.
These are the key questions and answers.
What’s the problem?
For decades, occasional weekday travellers – whether part-time workers or students – have been penalised by the rail fares system.
The cost of a monthly season ticket from A to B averages out at the cost of 10 round-trip journeys (though as we shall see, with some extreme variations).
For someone on a three-, four- or five-day-a-week commute, paying for 10 journeys in a month but travelling more than that is clearly a good deal: a calendar month contains between 20 and 23 weekdays.
As a bonus, the ticket can be used on any stretch of the line, usually with generous routing options. So a commuter with a season from a station on the Sussex coast to London could have a “free” trip to Gatwick or Brighton at weekends.
But for those who travel only twice a week, or intermittently, existing seasons are rarely worthwhile.
With passenger numbers still barely half what they were before the coronavirus pandemic and taxpayers spending around £1m per hour to keep half-empty trains running, the railway needs to do all it can to attract travellers.
Earlier this year, the Network Rail chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, predicted that commuter rail levels will be permanently lower, with passenger numbers likely to be around 80 per cent of 2019 levels.
What’s the solution?
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, working patterns were changing, with season ticket sales in long-term decline. Among the many repercussions from Covid, many people are likely to work from home on two or three days a week.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “For many, the idea of travelling five days a week to the office is fast becoming a relic of the past.
“The future is flexible: passengers want a simple, stress-free option, and new flexible tickets make fares fairer.”
The flexi season can be used on eight days in any 28. For a twice-weekly commuter, one flexi season will span four working weeks. Each day’s travel can be used whenever you wish.
Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who founded the Seat61.com international rail website, described the concept as a “quick win” in making rail more attractive to travellers.
Haven’t we heard all this before?
Yes. In 2013, the government announced a pilot scheme for part-time season tickets, saying part-time workers “have long complained they have to pay the full price for season tickets even though they do not get the full benefit”.
The then-rail minister, Norman Baker, said: “Our vision is for a ticketing system that gives passengers what they need, when they need it, but which over time costs less not more.”
His words are even more appropriate now.
Where can I get a flexi season?
The ticket is digital-only – either loaded onto a smartcard or a bar code suitable for a smartphone. It is available from train operators’ websites and apps, and through retailers such as Trainline. Alternatively you can register for one at some ticket offices.
How do I use it?
“Instructions on how to activate a day worth of travel can be found on your retailer’s website,” says the DfT.
You activate each day’s ticket by “touching in”. Normally this will involve using the smartcard as you go through the barrier or scanning the barcode on the reader; sometimes there may be a platform validator; or otherwise you can use the reader on a self-service ticket machine.
A National Rail Smartcard app is promised, which will make the process easier.
How much will I save?
The Department for Transport (DfT) says flexi seasons will be priced at least 20 per cent below a monthly season. But The Independent has found extreme variations, largely because of the ratio between the cost of a monthly season and an Anytime return ticket.
On some journeys, a season costs only the same as four return trips; on others, it is over 15.
Number of peak return journeys you could make for the price of a monthly season on 10 different routes
Stoke-on-Trent-Milton Keynes Central 4
Harpenden-City Thameslink 14.8
Between Winchester and London, a flexi season is 20 per cent cheaper than a monthly ticket; between Harpenden and City Thameslink, the saving is 52 per cent, with Leicester to Nottingham offering a similar discount.
The lower the discount, the less advantage a flexi season offers compared with previous options.
When announcing the scheme, the DfT calculated monthly savings for a two-day-a-week commuter of over £20 between Woking and London, over £18 between Liverpool and Manchester and over £13 from Stafford to Birmingham.
Monthly savings for three-day-a-week commuters are over £18 from St Albans to London, over £10 from Bromsgrove to Birmingham and over £7.50 from Weston-Super-Mare to Bristol.
Can I use it on any train operator?
No. It is not valid on the “open access” operators, Grand Central and Hull Trains; Heathrow Express (which has its own carnet offer); Merseyrail; TfL Rail, the London Underground or London Overground.
Discounts for railcard holders?
Only for 16-17 Saver and Job Centre Plus Travel Discount Card holders, who get them at half price.
Can I buy a first class flexi season?
No, standard class only. If you want to sit in first class, you should pay an “excess” in advance of the difference between the price of a standard and first class Anytime single.
What happens if I don’t use all eight days by the time 28 days is up?
You can ask for a refund, but it will be calculated by subtracting the Anytime return fare for each day you travelled and an administration fee of up to £10. The chances are you will lose the value of any unspent journeys.
Can I make more than one return journey in a day?
Yes: as with any season ticket you can make as many trips as you wish between any points within the permitted journey.
For example, a Reading commuter could travel to and from London Paddington during the day and make an evening journey to Ascot (on the London Waterloo line) in the evening – assuming the flexi season is for “any permitted route” rather than “via Slough”.
You can break your journey wherever you like, too.
The ticket can be used on trains scheduled to arrive by 4.29am on the day after the day of validation.
Can I get “Delay Repay” on a flexi season?
Yes, you can apply on the normal terms if you journey is significantly delayed. If you have activated a day of travel but you decide not to make your journey because of disruption, you can reclaim through Delay Repay; you cannot get the day’s validity reinstated.
As the name suggests, flexi seasons are excellent for people who need flexibility and travel at peak times. But they are unlikely to represent good value for journeys when off-peak tickets are available – including all day at weekends and on bank holidays – or, on journeys where Advance tickets are available, when you can commit ahead.
If you need to make only a one-way journey on a particular day, it is probably not worthwhile – for example if you stay overnight twice a week in London.
Mark Smith of Seat61.com says: “The majority of commuters still travel from home to work and back again each day, usually over a relatively short distance, typically up to 50 miles.
“If your journeys to work follow a less usual pattern with overnight stays at your work location, the new eight-trips-in-28-days flexi season might not be the best option.”
I commute to England from Wales. Can I benefit?
The new flexi seasons are valid only in England, which could disadvantage cross-border commuters from Wales into Bristol, Birmingham and Chester (as well as those from Scotland into Carlisle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle). In some circumstances splitting the journey into Anglo-Welsh and England-only segments may save.
If I find I need to make more than eight journeys in 28 days, can I upgrade to a monthly season?
No. Use up all eight journeys then buy a “classic” season ticket.
My train operator has a “carnet” scheme. Can I still use it?
No. Some train operators, including East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia, South Western Railway and Thameslink have been selling carnets of tickets that can be used at the traveller’s discretion.
These have now been scrapped, but remaining tickets can still be used in line with their original conditions.