Rail fares go up but 'secret' savers more available

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The Independent Online

Train fares increased at different rates across the country yesterday but so did the scope for passenger bargains - for those who know where to look for them, at least.

Train fares increased at different rates across the country yesterday but so did the scope for passenger bargains - for those who know where to look for them, at least.

Since the industry was privatised four years ago, discrepancies between different companies operating on the same routes have grown annually and so has the benefit of playing the system. Yet passengers have to find out for themselves how to save money because booking clerks are under orders not to volunteer the information.

The Independent has discovered that seasoned readers of the industry's fares guide can now save up to a quarter of the fare price by buying more than one ticket for a journey.

Until last Saturday, for instance, a passenger without any inside knowledge would turn up at the station and pay £78 to Virgin Trains for a "SuperSaver" ticket from Penzance to Birmingham. However, he or she could have asked for a Great Western SuperSaver ticket from Penzance to Cheltenham for £48 and a similar ticket from Cheltenham to Birmingham, set by Wales and West, for £13.80, thereby paying £16.20 less.

The passenger paying the lower fare could travel on the same train as the person who paid the full amount without any need to disembark at the intermediate station.

After yesterday's changes the "ignorant" traveller will pay Virgin £80, but because the other two operators do not increase their fares at this time of the year, the passenger who buys separate tickets will save £18.20. If the bargain-hunter is travelling on a Friday the saving increases to £19.30.

A call to the national inquiry line 0345-484950 by The Independent yesterday showed that staff will give the relevant information provided you can tell them precisely how you want to split up the journey.

Barry Doe, an independent public transport travel consultant, said that within a few years, it will be possible to save up to £50 on long journeys.

Mr Doe pointed out that the discrepancies can cause problems at station ticket offices. "You can imagine what can happen when a passenger books a fare for £78 and then overhears the person in front ofhim in the queue being charged £19.30 less. It would be like going to the supermarket and being charged £2 for three cans of beans and then someone else being charged £1.50 because he buys each one separately. You would be furious."

He added: "If a passenger fiddles a fare somehow and saves £1 he would be prosecuted - yet the rail system is fiddling an extra £19.30 out of the customer every time someone travels on a Friday between Penzance and Birmingham."

Mr Doe advised anyone who makes a journey regularly to check whether they could do it more cheaply by buying separate tickets. He argued that legislation should be introduced to give the Strategic Rail Authority the responsibility for setting fares. He pointed out that when bus operators apply for routes in London, the fares are set by London Transport.

"Fares should be taken out of the equation when companies apply for franchises to operate trains," he said.

Jon Allen, assistant general secretary of TSSA, the booking clerks' union, said it was unacceptable that staff were not able to be "open and honest" about fares. "This is an inevitable consequence of the way the industry has been fragmented. Operators have different needs and different polices and it is not acceptable that booking clerks get the blame," Mr Allen said.

The instructions to rail staff say: "Tickets should always be sold for the throughout [ sic ] journey required unless a customer specially requests more than one ticket for the journey."

The Association of Train Operating Companies conceded that the scope for securing bargains was greater now than it was under British Rail.

There are "lots and lots" of routes where buying more than one ticket would mean paying less, a spokeswoman said. "Fares on parts of routes are going to be cheaper because passengers are paying for shorter journeys," she said. "It would not be practical for booking clerks to quote all the alternatives especially where queues are building up at ticket offices."

A spokesman for the Strategic Rail Authority said that it wanted fares to be "more easily understood" and that this would be borne in mind when train operating franchises came up for renewal.

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