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29 Jul 2020

Flexible train tickets: will your part-time commute get cheaper?

The government is consulting with rail firms on new ticket discounts

Returning to the office part-time could get cheaper under new flexible rail ticket proposals put to the government.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has asked train companies for suggestions on creating 'part-time' season tickets, ahead of expected changes in commuter behaviour.

Many office workers are likely to work from home for at least part of the week after the pandemic, meaning standard season tickets do not offer good value.

Here, Which? looks at what the new proposals include and how much you could save with existing flexible railcard schemes.

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Why are flexi season tickets needed?

Traditional season tickets give you unlimited travel for seven days a week on a certain route at a discount. An annual ticket will usually give you the equivalent of 12 weeks' travel for free - a significant discount for daily commuters. But for part-time commuters, this is more expensive than just buying a ticket each day.

With working patterns set to change post lockdown, DfT is working with rail operators to create tickets that offer discounts to people commuting on a part-time or flexible basis.

Many rail firms will be unable to sell flexible tickets without approval from DfT, due to the way the franchising system works.

A DfT spokesperson said: 'While our top priority rightly is combating the spread of coronavirus, we know long-term the outbreak will likely affect how we commute.

'We are still working at pace with industry to examine how we can help make sure part-time and flexible commuters are provided with better value and more convenient options. We look forward to receiving proposals from train companies shortly.

'Our ambition before this crisis was delivering better journeys and value for money for passengers, and that commitment is unwavering.'

commuters on escalator wearing masks

What's being proposed?

We contacted several major rail operators to ask them about their flexi ticket proposals. Most are keeping the details under wraps, but we do know some specifics.

Great Western Railway (GWR)

GWR runs trains across the south and west of England, as well as in Wales. It confirmed it has proposed two kinds of flexible ticket:

  • Three days of travel within seven days
  • 12 days of travel in 28 days

Naturally, this would be ideal if you were travelling to the office either three days a week or 12 days a month (roughly half of each working week). However, we don't know anything about the pricing of these tickets yet.


Northern, which serves more than 500 stations in the north of England - has proposed selling 10 tickets for the price of nine to be used within six months. Commuters would load these tickets onto their 'smart' cards and could buy 10 more when needed.

This is cheaper than buying individual tickets on each day as and when you need them, but it might not offer the same level of discount that full-time season tickets provide.

This ticket is already being trialled on a route between Leeds and Harrogate, and Transport for the North plans to roll this flexi ticket out more widely.

Which? understands that some proposals cover technology upgrades to allow more stations to accept smartcards or e-tickets.

The Rail Delivery Group is coordinating proposals on behalf of train companies. Its director of nations and regions, Robert Nisbet, told Which?:

'Train companies fully understand that the way people are working and travelling is changing and that new types of ticket are needed to reflect that.

'We are working with the Department for Transport on proposals for flexible season tickets and will be putting forward suggestions for how this could work very shortly, as well as continuing to push for wide-ranging regulatory reform of the entire fares system.'

woman wearing mask at station

Flexible season tickets you can already buy

The DfT might announce a new season ticket model when it's reviewed the proposals, but if you're going back to the office part-time already, you do have some options.

Multiple rail operators we spoke to said they were already working on improving their flexible ticket options before the pandemic struck. The DfT itself announced it was working with Govia Thameslink Railway on a trial that would bring new flexible tickets to the Southern network earlier this year.

Despite this, you can't get flexible tickets everywhere in the country yet and they still rarely offer savings that rival full-time season tickets. Here's a rundown of what's available:

Carnet tickets

What are they?

Most flexible ticket offers from rail networks at the moment are carnet deals.

A carnet ticket deal is when you buy a batch of tickets (sometimes called a 'book' or 'carnet') at once at a discount to be used when you need them.

Northern's flexible smart ticket, which gives you 10 journeys for the price of nine, works like this. It's available to you already if you travel on the line between Leeds and Harrogate.

East Midlands Railway offers a similar arrangement, selling either 10 or 20-journey season tickets at a 5% discount for commuter journeys to and from Derby, Leicester and Nottingham.

Great Northern and Thameslink sell carnet tickets in books of five or 10 at a 10% discount. ScotRail also sells them across 28 of its routes at the same discount rate.

Greater Anglia has a FlexiPass ticket allowing you to buy bundles of five to 50 tickets at a 5% to 10% reduced rate.

How much could you save?

Though carnets can be better value than buying a return each day, full-time commuters get a better deal with regular season tickets.

Take Northern's flexible smart ticket. It costs £93.60 between Harrogate and Leeds. That works out at £9.36 per commute.

A weekly season ticket on the same route costs £42.90. If you used it on all seven days, that would be £6.13 per journey. Even if you only used it for five days out of seven, you'd be paying £8.58 per round trip.

Standard annual season tickets offer 52 weeks of travel for the price of 40. That's a 25% discount as opposed to the 10% carnet deals tend to offer. It might not sound that different, but it all adds up when you're spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on commuting each year.

We may see bigger discounts on carnet tickets in future. South Western Railway told us one of its proposals to DfT is an adapted version of its carnet offer.

Other flexi tickets

Liverpool's metro network Merseyrail offers a flexi-ticket, granting three days of travel over seven days. It's not designed to save you money, as it costs the same as three standard return journeys.

It will, however, stop you having to visit a ticket booth multiple times, which will help with social distancing.