Passengers are forced to choose from up to 30 fares between major UK destinations, with ticket prices varying sometimes by hundreds of pounds, according to a new survey.
Commuters can find themselves sitting next to a fellow passenger who has paid a fraction of the price to travel on the same train.
A survey in the May issue of Reader's Digest magazine indicates that passengers often buy a more expensive ticket than they need to. Analysis of the National Fares Manual found that there were 29 different fares between London and Glasgow's Central and Queen Street stations, with prices ranging from pounds 225 to pounds 29.
Susannah Hickling, deputy editor of Reader's Digest, said the situation, repeated across the country, was complicated by the number of restrictions on travel that were impossible for ordinary travellers to unravel. The system is further confused by the fact that although 60 per cent of fares are regulated, companies are free to hike up the rest to any level they like.
Jonathan Bray, of the lobby group Save Our Railways, said: "Passengers constantly complain that rock-bottom fares they see advertised are never actually available."
The national rail passenger watchdog, the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, received 1,109 complaints on fares in 1998, a 78 per cent increase on the previous year. A spokesman, Philip Wilks, said: "It's a very complex fares structure and we would like to see it made simpler." But he acknowledged that with public subsidy falling, operators had to exploit the difference between regulated and unregulated fares. "We have to cut through the maze without cutting the flexibility. Removing some fares could mean prices rocketing."
The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said a new system, the Rail Journey Information System, was being introduced. "This will throw up the information more speedily and will make the existing variety of tickets far easier to handle," said a spokesman.
Last year, the Government called on train companies to simplify fares after it emerged that some ticket prices were being hiked by 10 times the level of inflation. The issue is likely to be high on the agenda of Sir Alastair Morton, who will head the Government's plannedStrategic Rail Authority.
From London to: No. of adult fares Max Min
Glasgow 29 pounds 225 pounds 29
Birmingham New Street 24 pounds 114 pounds 14
Edinburgh 20 pounds 225 pounds 30
Manchester 19 pounds 170 pounds 19
Exeter 17 pounds 234 pounds 20
Newcastle 16 pounds 212 pounds 30
Bristol TM 15 pounds 162 pounds 15
Cardiff 14 pounds 182 pounds 20
Plymouth 9 pounds 281 pounds 25
Southampton 7 pounds 84 pounds 19.50
Brighton 6 pounds 66 pounds 14
Source: `Reader's Digest'