Are rail passengers being overcharged by apps? Can you claim back money ?

Train apps can save customers time and money but an MP has said they do not tell the whole story (PA)
Train apps can save customers time and money but an MP has said they do not tell the whole story (PA)

Rail passengers are being overcharged by up to £100 for long-distance train journeys from London by ticketing apps, an MP claimed in Parliament on Wednesday.

Chris Loder said that he wants an investigation into rail ticketing apps by the competition watchdog, the Standard has reported.

The Tory representative for West Dorset spoke up during a debate on the proposed closure of almost 1,000 ticket offices. The session heard that while nine out of 10 tickets are now bought online, the cheapest tickets are not always easy to find and it can be a challenge to apply a railcard discount.

“It is pure commercial disdain,” Mr Loder said of the online ticketing systems. “It just makes me sick. This, frankly, is a scandal.”

He gave the example of the return journey from London to Plymouth, which could be done for £93.90 return – or £64.50 return with a railcard – if a passenger changed at Exeter. But the cheapest he could find the journey offered on any app was for £158.70.

While Mr Loder’s comment that services can hide the best ticket options were decried as “absolutely untrue” by one such app, The Trainline, the public do need to be savvy when trying to save on their fares.

Are people being overcharged by apps?

Mr Loder claimed that 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. These claims have been denied.

The Trainline said: “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."

However, the confusion around the issue has led to MPs calling for a roll back on proposals to shut ticket offices around the UK.

Mr Loder added: “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.”

Chris Loder MP (Parliament)
Chris Loder MP (Parliament)

Can I claim back money if I am overcharged by an app?

MoneySavingExpert reported in 2017 that 12 train companies signed up to a voluntary price guarantee to refund the difference if passengers could have bought a cheaper ticket when buying from a machine.

The companies to put themselves forward were: Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern, c2c, East Midlands Trains, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Heathrow Express, Merseyrail, Northern, Scotrail, Transpennine Express and Virgin Trains.

Why does the government want to shut ticket offices?

The government wants to make savings after the rail network was hit during the coronavirus pandemic. The Rail Delivery Group has outlined ticket offices as a potential saving and says that just 12 per cent of tickets are now bought in offices, compared with 24 per cent before the pandemic.

A total of 974 ticket offices are at risk of closure, according to the House of Commons Library. Up to 2,300 jobs are thought to be at risk. MPs said that more than 200 million tickets a year were bought through ticket offices.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) has said it willl “vigorously oppose” the proposals and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association claims the public has “no desire to see their rail network diminished in this way”.

Mr Loder was backed in Parliament by other MPs who do not want to see ticket offices close.

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.

Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson (PA Archive)
Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson (PA Archive)

How can I save money when buying rail tickets?

Rail passengers can get the best value fare and save money by trying a number of techniques.

MoneySavingExpert recommends rail ticket fare splitting apps such as Split Your Ticket and TrainSplit to give you cheaper through journeys – you will just need to ensure that if your ticket it is via a station it stops there. For example, if your split ticket is from London to York and then York to Edinburgh, the train will need to stop at York.

Booking 12 weeks ahead is advantageous for getting cheaper tickets and within that time period it is good to book as soon as possible. Getting a railcard is an investment but it will save you one third on each ticket bought, meaning you can make the money back.