Passengers are being overcharged by almost £100 for long-distance journeys from London due to the “scandal” of ticketing apps not offering the cheapest fares, an MP claimed in Parliament on Wednesday.
Tory MP Chris Loder called for an investigation by the competition watchdog during a debate on the proposed closure of almost 1,000 ticket offices.
And he indicated Transport Secretary Mark Harper was set to water down the proposals to close the ticket offices after a massive backlash from passengers.
Mr Loder, MP for West Dorset and previously a railway station assistant for 20 years, told a Westminster Hall debate of the “scandal” of online ticket pricing.
Almost nine in 10 tickets are bought online but MPs are concerned that the cheapest fares are not easily found via apps, while passengers using rail cards may not be able to obtain discounted tickets.
Mr Loder gave the example of a return journey from London to Plymouth. He said the cheapest way to travel from London to Plymouth was to depart from Waterloo and change trains at Exeter St David’s.
He said a split ticket, from Waterloo to Axminster and then from Axminster to Plymouth, cost £93.90 return – or £64.50 return with a railcard.
But on the Trainline.com the journey cost a “staggering” £158.70, “almost £100 more than the cheapest alternative”. He said this was due to “anti-competitive digital algorithms”.
He said apps used algorithms that prevented passengers being offered the cheapest tickets.
He said South Western Railway’s website also failed to offer the cheapest tickets – and directed passengers to make the journey from Paddington, rather than use SWR services from Waterloo.
“It is pure commercial distain,” he said of the online ticketing systems. “It just makes me sick. This, frankly, is a scandal.”
He plans to write to the Competition and Mergers Authority to ask for an investigation.
When the Standard tried to book the same journey on the Trainline app, a return fare of £119.80 was offered – which the app said to be a saving of £71.70. This journey was from Paddington via Bristol. Tickets via Waterloo did not appear to be available.
South Western Railway’s website also said the cheapest return ticket was £119.80 – again from Paddington.
Trainline said the best way to travel between London and Plymouth was from Paddington - as the journey was about two-and-a-half hours quicker than it would take by changing trains at Axminster.
A Trainline spokesman said: "It is absolutely untrue that we hide the best ticket options - quite the opposite.
“Our tech identifies the best journeys on a balance of price and convenience, and we are proud to save our customers 35 per cent on average through Advance fares, SplitSave and Railcard discounts. We do not set ticket prices and any suggestion we behave anti-competitively is unfounded."
Mr Loder said Mr Harper spoke to him last week about the ticket office closure plans and told him “that the sort of duplicity that is being proposed could be vetoed” – suggesting the proposals were unlikely to be accepted in their current form.
A total of 974 ticket offices are at risk of closure, according to the House of Commons Library. Up to 2,300 jobs are though to be at risk. MPs said that more than 200m tickets a year were bought through ticket offices.
Mr Loder told the Westminster Hall debate, which was attended by Rail Minister Huw Merriman: “I’m requesting that the Minister will stop these ridiculous proposals from South Western Railway.
“I am here to make the case for our station staffing hours to be maintained. We need to make sure that, in this cost of living crisis, passengers can get the cheapest fare rather than relying on manipulative apps and online digital prices that overcharge them.
“The one person that can be trusted to provide the cheapest fare is the ticket office clerk.”
Mark Francois, the Tory MP for Rayleigh and Wickford in Essex, told the rail minister: “These proposals are completely unloved. They are not popular, even among Conservative backbenchers. Quite, quite the opposite.
“A mistake has been made. Take the hint. Drop it. Get rid of it. Retreat gracefully – but do not press forward with this. The House of Commons doesn’t want it, and neither do our constituents.”
Munira Wilson, the Lib-Dem MP for Twickenham, said busy stations in her constituency such as Whitton and Teddington being reduced “to only 20 hours of staffing a week”.
She said she was worried about the impact on disabled passengers, people needing special tickets not available online and women travelling at night.
She said: “Without an equality impact study we should not be pressing ahead with these changes.”
Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, said Barnes, Putney, Earlsfield and Wandsworth Town stations also faced cutbacks to ticket offices.
The hearing was told that a whistleblower at Abellio Greater Anglia had told their MP: “The ticket offices are used much more than people realise.”
Stations such as Billericay were said to sell more than 500 tickets per shift on weekends. The figure of 12 per cent of tickets being bought at ticket offices was said to have been only an average.
Mr Merriman said he expected train firms to “refine their proposals” in light of the comments made in the 680,000 responses to the consultation.
He said the aim was to get ticket office staff out from behind their screens and be more visible and accessible to passengers. An update on the proposals is due by the end of October.
Battling to speak against barracking from MPs, Mr Merriman said he did not expect there to be a “material reduction” in the hours “where ticketing expertise is available at the stations” and that the “volume of hours is similar to what we have currently”.