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Destination hell: train passengers 'held to ransom'

You don't have to be a genius to travel when you want at a price you want... but it helps

One train, 70 ticket types, 776 conditions of travel. Destination? Chaos.

That, at least, is the opinion of MPs on the cross-party Transport Committee, who have condemned the complexity of pricing on Britain's railways as "an insult" to passengers.

Train travellers are being "held to ransom by a chaotic and impenetrable system of fares", a damning committee report concludes.

It expresses particular concern that if you pay on the day, fares can be "absurdly high". And if you book in advance in the hope of a cheap seat, you might find yourself bamboozled by the different names chosen by the different train operators for identical deals. For example, depending on the firm, advance tickets for a journey might be called "4-sight", "Value advance", "SuperAdvance" or "Apex". And if all that wasn't enough, the very cheapest pre-booked tickets are in limited supply.

"Getting a good-value train ticket has become a lottery," warns Anthony Smith, chief executive of the consumer watchdog Passenger Focus.

A glance at a popular route demonstrates the dizzying amounts you can win, or lose, in this great train lottery. If you had turned up at King's Cross station on Tuesday last week and paid for an "open return" to Leeds - travelling back within a month at any time - it would have set you back £165.

But if you had been sure which train you were catching back, a "saver" return would have cost less than half that at £71.60.

If you had booked the journey several weeks in advance, though, you could have bought two "advance purchase" singles at just £9.50 each - a total of £19 and a £146 saving.

George Muir, director-general of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), says the companies "have listened to passengers and are beginning to simplify tariffs".

First Great Western runs trains across the south and west of England and is to change its price structure on 11 June. It says its new focus is on a simple universal principle: the earlier you book, the cheaper it is.

Under the new structure, one-way tickets from Oxford to London will cost from £4 (the lowest price is currently £9.50); London to Bristol from £10 (£20); and Portsmouth to Cardiff from £7 (£9). However, First Great Western can't disclose how many cheap tickets will be available on each train, saying it is commercially sensitive information.

And the busier the train - in rush hour, say - the fewer the cheaper fares available.

The company says, though, that its new pricing structure also allows passengers to mix and match peak and off-peak travel.

Consumers will be able to buy each leg of the journey and pay less if one of them is off-peak. In the past, if you wanted to take just one leg at a busy time, you would be charged a higher fare for the overall trip.

Booking ahead has long been the mantra from train companies for cheaper seats: every week, 320,000 low-cost, "advance purchase" tickets are available across the networks. But what about those users who can't travel off-peak or don't have such predictable travel patterns that they can book weeks or months ahead?

So far, the message is "tough", according to the MPs' report. "Excessive price increases have put standard open fares well beyond what is affordable for most people," it warns. The ability of many people to travel by train "has been severely curtailed because walk-on [pay on the day] journeys are [their] only option and they are priced out".

In particular, Mr Smith at Passenger Focus warns that the "saver" fare - a government-regulated deal universal to all operators - is being squeezed. " 'Savers' have suffered a slow death as increasing restrictions have throttled their usefulness."

Many operators are imposing tighter limits on these fares, the Transport Committee's report concurs. Notably, they have meddled with the definition of peak and off-peak periods, "making the latter an ever smaller window in the day".

Figures from Passenger Focus show a "turn up and go" return from Preston to London leaving on a weekday after 9am and returning at 3.45pm cost £36 in 1995. That figure was £52.70 in 2000 and £195 in 2005. Passenger Focus is calling for train firms to introduce "same day" affordability.

For now, finding a cheap fare relies on discount railcards or painstakingly going through all the different options with staff at the National Rail network help centre - at the cost of a local call to you. These options might include cheaper, roundabout journeys.

You could try the website thetrainline.com for details of 293 million journey and fare combinations throughout the UK. Type in your destination and it will show the tickets available - and let you buy them.

However, the website automatically adds on a £1 insurance charge per journey, which customers must actively opt out of if they don't want it. The insurance covers you from door to door against loss caused by missed or delayed trains, lost luggage or journey cancellation. But critics argue that travel cover is unnecessary as you are entitled to a refund anyway if your train is cancelled. Lost baggage will normally be included in your home contents insurance.