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Passengers take the strain down the telephone

An Independent reporter, posing as a passenger who wants the cheapest return fare from London to Birmingham next Tuesday morning, is told that the best price is pounds 57.50 return from Euston to Birmingham New Street on Virgin West Coast.

The cheapest ticket is in fact the pounds 20 return from London's Marylebone station using the Chiltern train company.

Reporter: "Is that the cheapest fare?"

Operator: "I just put in the details you requested. For Birmingham the computer just throws up New Street from Euston."

Reporter: "What about Birmingham Snow Hill, that is a ten minute walk from New Street."

Operator: "Oh yes. You can leave at 6.30 in the morning ... The cheap day return from Marylebone on that route. That is only pounds 20."

Reporter: "So why didn't that come up as the cheapest ticket?"

Operator: "The computer only shows New Street station when you put in Birmingham. You need to tell me which station in Birmingham, otherwise I can't give you the cheapest fare."

t An Independent reporter posing as a passenger tries to get the price of a ride for which there is no fare.

Merely by pretending to want to end up in Lockerbie, which normally involves a change at Edinburgh Haymarket, a passenger from London can get a cheaper ticket than the standard London to Edinburgh fare.

According to the rules - set out in the rail regulator's routing guide - tickets with loopholes like this should not be sold. But the reporter is told the fare exists.

Operator: (after 30 rings)

" 12 o'clock from King's Cross, arrives at Haymarket at 16:44. Get a connecting train that departs at 17:14 and arrives 18:10 at Lockerbie."

Reporter: "How much?"

Operator: "pounds 53 return."

Reporter: "Where is Haymarket?"

Operator: "I'll have a look ... Oh, actually it is above Lockerbie. You have to go up to Edinburgh and then come down."

Reporter: "That means I can get a pounds 53 ticket to Edinburgh?"

Operator: "(Laughs ...) Oh no, that's at least a pounds 60 saver. I don't know why that happens. I don't make the fares up."

Reporter: "So I can save pounds 10 every time I go to Edinburgh by pretending I am going to Lockerbie?"

Operator: "(Nervous giggle ...) It is odd but I don't know who makes the fares up."