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Simon Calder: We may suffer from the most expensive train tickets in Europe, but we also enjoy the cheapest


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.

Commuters urged to show anger over fares