Simon Calder: We may suffer from the most expensive train tickets in Europe, but we also enjoy the cheapest
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Tuesday 03 January 2012
A train ticket or an on-the-spot fine? From this morning, some rail passengers would be forgiven for confusing a “walk-up” ticket for the 100-minute Virgin Trains hop from London Euston to Macclesfield with a fixed penalty notice. The fare has risen to £145 – almost a pound a mile for the privilege of exchanging NW1 for east Cheshire.
Such a fare couldn’t happen in Germany – a nation significantly bigger, and which has a faster and more sophisticated rail network than Britain. The maximum fare for any German rail journey is capped at €135 (£112). In France, you could walk up to the ticket desk at Dunkirk– the northernmost mainland station – and hand over the euro equivalent of £145 to travel more than 700 miles, much of it at 186mph, to the southernmost station, Cerbere.
The bleak lineside scenery from Britain’s railways may seem to comprise an embarrassing, expensive shambles. Certainly, a wagonload of shame needs to be showered upon successive governments. They have repeatedly meddled with the superstructure of the railways, yet failed properly to invest – and to tackle the industry’s built-in inefficiencies that make our costs per passenger mile inexcusably high.
As Sir Roy McNulty’s hard-hitting report last year revealed, the Railway Regulation Act of 1842 still allows private landowners to extract “ransom payments” from Network Rail. To replace a station ticket machine involves "at least 10 decision-making stages". And many drivers spend more of their working time on rest breaks than they do on what the fare-paying passenger and the taxpayer actually pay them to do, ie driving trains.
Britain’s 19th-century railway system struggles to meet 21st-century social, economic and environmental targets: enabling commuters to reach their places of work in urban centres; connecting families and businesses; luring motorists from road to rail; and providing mass transportation for everyone from football fans to holidaymakers.
The primary instrument deployed to manage these conflicting goals is blunt but effective: price. And despite the collective despondency that envelops Britain’s rail passengers at each annual round of fare rises, we’re actually rather good at it – a result, paradoxically, of our supremacy in aviation. The UK’s ferociously competitive, efficient and safe airlines place us way ahead of the rest of Europe. Their not-so-secret weapon: revenue management, the art of squeezing the maximum fare out of every seat while leaving as few as possible empty.
Starting with the Anglo-Scottish operators, who saw rail passengers deserting in droves to easyJet, the train companies recognised that artful fare-cutting can fill off-peak trains that – in comparable European countries – run largely empty.
With a bit of flexibility and advance planning, you can find a £12 ticket on a fast and comfortable Virgin express from London to Macclesfield. Among “walk-up” customers, only the most pressed – or those on expenses – will stump up £145 to travel with Virgin when operators such as London Midland will get you there for 60 per cent less. We may suffer from the most expensive train tickets in Europe, but we also enjoy the cheapest.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
- 2 Loom bands: Bids for dress made from colourful rubber pass £170,000 on eBay
- 3 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
- 4 L'Oreal cuts ties with Belgium supporter Axelle Despiegelaere after hunting trip photographs
- 5 The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week
Game of Thrones author George RR Martin says 'f*** you' to fans who fear he will die before finishing Westeros saga
Loom bands: Bids for dress made from colourful rubber pass £170,000 on eBay
Supermoon 2014: When and why will the moon look bigger and brighter this summer?
Tommy Ramone dies: Last surviving founder and drummer seminal punk band The Ramones dies aged 62
Gaza-Israel conflict: The terrible price Palestinian children are paying for Israel’s war with Hamas
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Socialist Worker called to apologise over ‘vile’ article saying Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple's death is ‘reason to save the polar bears’
£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...
£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...
£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...
£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...