The Big Question: Why is rail travel so expensive, and could it be made more affordable?

Why are we asking this now?

We’ve all heard the anecdotes from friends returning from trips to the continent which tell of their delight at travelling on spacious, air-conditioned trains for a fraction of the price of a similar journey here. In the past, those anecdotes, save for a few brave attempts by some enterprising MPs, have been all we have had to go on in trying to make a comparison between the cost of rail travel in Britain and our European neighbours. Until now, that is. The rail industry watchdog, Passenger Watch, has published its analysis of the relative cost of rail travel in Britain compared to seven other European nations. It will not make pleasant reading for the Government.

So how do we compare?

In terms of price, not well. The analysis looked at three different kinds of commuter journeys to the “principle city” in the eight European countries: short commutes of between five and 16km, medium journeys of between 17 and 40km, and longer trips of between 41 and 80km. It found that in all three categories, “unrestricted day return” fares, which allow commuters to take any train they choose, were more expensive in Britain than any of the other countries examined.

Commuters making a journey in the medium band have to pay 59 per cent more than those in Switzerland, the second most expensive country in that category, while the fare is more than three times the cost of commuters making a similar trip in Spain.

What about other types of tickets?

The price of season tickets for short, medium and long commutes to London, Britain’s “principle city”, were all more expensive here than anywhere else examined. Medium-distance season tickets bought here cost more than four times the amount of an equivalent ticket in Italy. Prices are more comparable in terms of off-peak services, although fares in Britain were still either the highest or second highest in Europe.

The price of the most restrictive long-distance return ticket in the UK, in which a passenger’s ticket is only valid on the trains they nominate, were around the same cost as fully flexible tickets for similar journeys across Europe.

Any good news?

Yes. In terms of the number of services provided, Britain is at the top of the class. We have more trains per hour in the short and longer commuter categories than our European rivals. We also perform well in terms of the number of long-distance trains offered, with more long-distance services available to our second city, Birmingham, than elsewhere in Europe.

Is the study credible?

It is the most authoritative attempt to make this comparison to date. It is the first time that a comprehensive, Europe-wide study has been completed. The study was commissioned by former Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly amid concerns about fares and the performance of Britain’s rail network after low passenger satisfaction ratings emerged.

What is pushing prices up?

Passenger Focus largely blames the high fare prices on the Government’s determination to lower the subsidy that the taxpayer currently hands to the rail industry. The Government wants passengers to bear 75 per cent of the costs, up from the current 50-50 split. Others blame the high price paid for rail franchises by rail operators, but the Government is adamant that these will not be renegotiated.

So what is the answer?

The call from Passenger Focus is for a reversal of the policy to cut the Government subsidy, and the introduction of a blanket limit on the amount by which fares can be increased. It wants poor performing operators to be prevented from implementing the full fare increased allowed.

Will the Government listen?

Passenger Focus is not just a pressure group – it was set up by the Government to act as an independent watchdog for passengers across Britain. As such, it does have a close relationship with the Government and is regularly consulted on decisions made by the Department for Transport. Whether it has much influence on final decisions is a matter of debate. Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon received a copy of the report last week and its contents look set to be the topic for discussion when his transport minister, Lord Adonis, is quizzed by MPs next week.

Could fares come down?

The Government is not likely to change its approach on reducing the subsidy given to the rail system. It expects fares to fall this year anyway, as inflation falls. It also says that it would take an extra £500m from the taxpayer to bring prices down to the European level, which it believes would be an unfair burden. But outrage over the size of some of the rail fare increases at the start of this year – more than 10 per cent in some places – could well concentrate the minds of ministers.

Any other issues?

Ticketing is still incredibly confusing and needs to be simplified, Passenger Focus also made clear in this report. How right they are. Attempts have been made to simplify the presentation of tickets, with an array of “saver”, “super saver” and “advanced saver” tickets being replaced by peak, off-peak and advanced purchase tickets. A lot more needs to be done. The advent of internet booking sites has exposed the fact that there are still many quirks in the system that consumers find baffling, such as two single tickets being cheaper than a return, and the purchase of a series of tickets costing less than one through-ticket.

Are the railways all bad?

Away from the report, the news is not all bad by any means. While price is a real issue, rail services have been improving and the general satisfaction rate among the public is now up to 83 per cent and the punctuality rate is now very high, with nine out of 10 trains running on time. That has been helped by much heavier investment, as the good record in terms of the number of services demonstrates. But overcrowded trains combined with high prices are still a problem, as shown by the fact that only 43 per cent of passengers believe they are receiving value for money.

Is the service being improved?

There are some developments that will come as a real plus for rail users. First of all, the Government has just awarded a £7.5bn contract to a consortium led by Japanese train builder Hitachi, to build 1,400 new engines and coaches to ferry commuters between London and Cambridge, Leeds, Hull, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. They will also be used to link London with the Thames Valley and South Wales. They will replace creaking trains that are as much as three decades old and will have room for more passengers.

That’s not all. Lord Adonis, who is proving to be a workaholic in his new role as transport minister, is also said to be firming up plans to build a high speed rail link to the Midlands. Mr Hoon is another a fan of the project. That should take some pressure off the rail network, ease overcrowding and improve journey times. So while travelling by rail in the UK may be expensive, the conditions and speed of services are set to improve.

Is the British rail system the worst in Europe?


* Commuter journeys using almost all types of tickets were found to be most expensive in Britain

* Some fares increased by more than 10 per cent this year – a big hit on consumers during a recession

* Satisfaction rates on some commuter routes are below 30 per cent because of cost and overcrowding


* Though tickets are expensive, taxpayers fund a smaller subsidy than other countries

* Britain comes top of the class in terms of the number of commuter and long-distance services available

* Improvements have been made, trains are more punctual and more people are using them

Suggested Topics
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
voicesI like surprises - that's why I'm bringing them back to politics, writes Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Adam Levine plays a butcher who obsessively stalks a woman in Maroon 5's 'Animals' music video
music'Animals' video 'promotes sexual violence against women'
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Horowitz will write the next 007 novel
booksAnthony Horowitz to write new instalment in spy series for 2015

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Kicking on: Nathaniel Clyne is relishing the challenge of the Premier League after moving from Crystal Palace
footballSurprises include a first ever call-up for one Southampton star
4 May 2013: The sun rises over Tower Bridge in London. Temperatures across the UK could be higher than several European holiday destinations by Monday, including parts of Italy and France (Andy Hepburn/PA)
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Arts and Entertainment
The first batch of coach and ticket packages has sold out for next year's Glastonbury
musicIt looks like you're going to have to be quick to get tickets this year
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Fundraising Analyst/Web Analyst - West Sussex - Permanent - £30k DOE

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Application Support Engineer – 6 month FTC – West Sussex - £26k-£28k pro rata

£26000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Head of IT Change – West Sussex – Up to £60k DOE – Permanent

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Services Team Leader

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a prog...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?