Variable prices and non-refundable train tickets. It has become daily business in European railways. Even if Intercity trains run every hour, the ticket at 2 pm can be much cheaper than on the 1pm train. The system is copying what is known from airlines. An online system is auctioning tickets, cheap tickets are possible three months ahead, but if you at a given day book four tickets the price is already going considerable up in relation to one – you yourself increase demand – a very sensible system! You stop the computer and try again later with one ticket. And now is the price is again reduced. Prices go up and down, and finally they reach full fare. Suddenly a good bargain on first class will appear?
And don’t forget: Tickets are only valid to the specific train. Do you lose the train, and pick up the next, the ticket is lost, and you have to pay a new ticket to full fare. That is a very unpleasant surprise to many travelers. Do you experience this too many times, you are not going to be a happy railway costumer.
A stiff timetable with trains in a ½ hour, 1 hour and 2 hours schedule fortunately exists in many countries; even Germany is looking into this option. Passengers love it. One of the best known examples is in Switzerland, where the system is perfect. But as in Switzerland it makes no sense to introduce stiff timetables together with variable and non-refundable tickets. Passengers will soon learn to hate such a ticket system.
In Denmark we have a system close to the “good old one” – tickets to flat rates related to distance, and refundable. But prices are very high, and only as regular commuter you get a cheap fare (minimum for 30 days on a specific line). Those who travels rather often, but not on daily basis, does not get any rebates. Our new, and sophisticated “Travelcard” makes rebates to frequent travelers but in zones and very un-transparent. We have considerable rebates to students and retired persons. DSB does sell some online cheap tickets on not so popular departures (Orange tickets), and they are non-refundable. But the market share of Orange tickets is rather small.
In Switzerland you can rather cheap get a half fare card (or SwizzPass) for 185 Francs valid for one year. That is a good bargain, and makes it easier to quit the car, and just rely on the very efficient railway network. This is exactly the whole idea. And tickets from the ticket machines are valid all day, forget about which train, and forget about seat reservations, there is normally seats to all in the big trains. This is combined with commuter cards optimal! It gives us a feeling that public transportation is a real network, and that the system cares for you! A train running late? No, problem, the next will come shortly, your ticket is fine and your connection will be re-established.
Full fare tickets in Switzerland are not cheap. But half fare is ok.
Off course there are additional systems to the main system in Switzerland. In the Cantons tourists can obtain 5-6 days travel passes, there are also local “free fare” systems. But none of this is breaking the major principles.
Leave the variable prices and discount offers to busses and plains
Railways across Europe should learn from Switzerland. Both regarding rail investments, rail quality and ticketing system.
Auctioning tickets is very unpleasant. You wouldn’t expect such systems in urban traffic, would you? Why in Intercity traffic? Leave such systems to other kind of traffic, where they do not belong to a network. It may look cheap at the first place, but is stressful, inflexible and may show up as the most expensive solution.