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It is the train operators that control individual rail fare changes, but for certain categories of fares they are constrained by regulation, which prohibits increases beyond inflation each year.

Train operators can and do reduce individual fares. A typical case is the Advanced Fare, which provides a considerable discount to travel during quieter periods and with limited flexibility. But fares on the National Rail network, at least since 2004, have not been reduced or frozen across the board, or even for a single operator. Overall fare levels have increased off the back of rising industry costs and successive government policies to shift the burden of paying for the railways away from the taxpayer to the passenger.   

A fares freeze or reduction will almost certainly not happen anytime soon. The costs are likely to be too prohibitive to government for this to occur, meaning the annual regulated fare increases are set to continue for some time yet.

Given this, much of the discussion around reform is focussed on improving the system to make fares and ticketing simpler, easier and more transparent for passengers.

Several governments have attempted to institute change in these areas since privatisation. While some positive changes have been delivered for passengers, including new ticketing technologies and an improved process of buying tickets, the overall system remains largely as it was.

As a result, the same passenger frustrations remain and the case for reform is still strong. The Rail Delivery Group believe that “maintaining the status quo is not an option” and have proposed what they describe as “root-and-branch reform” of the current system.

However, the obstacles that prevented widespread reform in the past – namely the cost to government, the complexity of the regulations and the political palatability of reform – remain largely as they were. It is not clear whether these can be easily overcome. In any case, widespread changes will take several years to implement.

In addition to providing an overview of the current fares and ticketing framework, this paper provides an extensive discussion of these issues, what action has been proposed since privatisation and what proposals have been formally implemented.

A statistical overview of rail fare changes since privatisation can be found in HC Library briefing paper Railways: fares statistics.

Information on other rail-related matters can be found on the Railways Topical Page of the Parliament website.

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