The great train fare robbery that is costing you thousands

Published by Matthew Wall on 03 November 2011.
Last updated on 04 November 2011

Train blurred

The cost of train travel is now so cripplingly expensive for commuters that some are resorting to travelling by coach and car sharing, despite high fuel costs. With regulated fares set to increase by 3 to 5% above inflation each year until 2014 - or 30% in total - the pain is set to continue for Britain's long-suffering rail passengers.

Commuters travelling from Horsham, West Sussex, to London Victoria could see their annual season tickets rise from an already eye-watering £3,300 to as much as £4,636 by 2014, according to Passenger Focus, the independent watchdog. The era of the £5,000-plus season ticket has already arrived for some.

Transport minister Philip Hammond, who recently described the British rail system as a "rich man's toy", wants to transfer most of the cost of running our railways from the taxpayer to the passenger, despite the fact that most other European rail systems rely on a greater proportion of government subsidy.

Paying more for less

A report from the Department for Transport and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) published in May - Realising the Potential of GB Rail - found that our rail system is around 40% more expensive than those of France, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Rail season ticket prices could rise by 8%

The report concluded: "Passenger fares per kilometre on average are around 30% higher in the UK and…it seems likely that the UK taxpayer is also paying at least 30% more than taxpayers elsewhere."

In other words, we're paying more in tax as well as for fares.

No improvement

The lack of improvement in performance is also concerning the ORR, which recently highlighted particular problems on the East Coast, First Great Western and First ScotRail services. It is threatening "formal action" if Network Rail - responsible for rail infrastructure - fails to meet its performance targets.

While the train operating companies are trying to cut costs by adopting unpopular measures such as staffless stations and reduced ticket office opening hours, passengers are being asked to foot a higher proportion of the overall bill. Indeed, there's little sign of improvement in any aspect of service, despite all the extra cash.

Passenger Focus reports that only 49% of passengers are satisfied that ticket prices represent value for money, and just 40% are happy with the way train operators handle delays and cancellations.

Despite this, ORR chief executive Richard Price says the number of trains running late has fallen by 10% over the past five years. But the current definition of 'late' allows trains to be within five or 10 minutes of the advertised time, depending on the type of journey.

If we moved to 'real-time railways', where late actually means late - arriving after the advertised time - then the punctuality figures would be much worse.

Unwilling to pay

Research by May Gurney, a rail infrastructure services company, has found that 70% of rail passengers interviewed would be unwilling to pay more for their tickets, even if this led to better trains and infrastructure. No wonder then that car-sharing schemes are growing in popularity.

According to, a car-sharing website, commuters could save between 41% and 79% on the cost of 100-plus mile inter-city rail commutes if they made use of the spare seats in their cars.

Complicated fares

Another aspect of rail travel driving travellers to distraction is the sheer complexity of the fare structures. As well as having to deal with a bewildering number of train operating companies - 23 at the last count - passengers have to grapple with heaps of jargon and a dizzying array of rules and regulations.

There are three main types of rail ticket: advance, off-peak and anytime.

Advance are single tickets you can buy ahead of your journey (usually available 12 weeks before travel), but while they can be the cheapest tickets they are non-refundable, you have to use a specific train, and you can't break your journey without having to buy another ticket.

Five ways to make the most of your train ticket

Off-peak refers to whatever the train company defines as its less busy period for the journey you're making. Confusingly, this isn't necessarily during traditional off-peak times.

The most flexible ticket is the anytime ticket, but it's often (but not always) the most expensive.

So besides these three ticket types, do you know the difference between an open return and a flexible return; or an off-peak and a super-off-peak? Do you know that the same train can be both peak and off-peak at the same time, depending on the journey you're making?

Did you know that buying two singles can be cheaper than buying a return? Except when it isn't. Or that some station ticket machines are so dumb they'll sell you tickets for trains that have already been cancelled?

The McNulty report acknowledges that: "Fare structures do not send efficient pricing signals, particularly in terms of managing peak demand, and are extremely complex."

As a result, a growing number of passengers are using websites to help them through the journey-planning quagmire - whether National Rail, the relevant train operator, or third-party sites such as, or

But Passenger Focus research indicates that even confident regular travellers don't always find the most appropriate tickets this way because the sites can be difficult to navigate and lacking in crucial information. This means many passengers are paying more than they need to.

"When you're buying something you're not familiar with, confusion can set in very quickly. You're hit with a surprisingly large choice of fares, a choice of train operating companies, and lots of jargon without the traditional ticket clerk at hand to translate for you," says Mike Hewitson, head of passenger issues for Passenger Focus.

Calls for transparency

The watchdog argues that train company websites need to be far more responsive, alerting users when cheaper tickets are available for the selected route, for example. Some websites, such as East Coast's, already offer this service but it should be standard practice.

It doesn't help that on the same route ticket prices can vary by nearly £200, depending on the time, day and class of travel.

For example, East Coast Trains advertises tickets from £13.20 to £211.50 on its London to Glasgow route. But when Moneywise investigated it wasn't at all clear when this lowest fare was available - a feature of some discount airline advertising that has also attracted criticism.

It's clear that life for rail passengers isn't going to improve any time soon, in regard to cost, level of service or fare transparency. In the meantime, the best Moneywise can do is try to guide you through the ticket maze and give you tips on how to find the cheapest tickets.

With rail fares set to rise again in the New Year, will they affect the way you commute?

More About

Leave a comment