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Simon Calder: Train operators need to make the going easier

The man who pays his way

No industry matches travel for the sheer breadth of swizzes, from bargain air fares that prove tantalisingly unavailable to New York hotel rates quoted exclusive of the three mandatory local taxes. Has Peter Lawton uncovered another? He is exercised about the Advance train fares on the East Coast Trains website:

"It states 'fares from £13.20 to £133.50' for a one-way trip between Edinburgh and London," he tells me. "I admit I haven't looked for the latter but I'm darned if I can find the former."

Bargains are rare indeed right now: make the trip on Monday and the lowest fare is £42.75. But look further ahead, and the bargains appear. I plugged in an Edinburgh-London journey for Monday 12 December. Tickets were available at £13.20 – a remarkable price for 400 miles of comfortable travel along one of the UK's most beautiful railways.

So what's the catch? The lowest price applied only to the last East Coast departure of the day on the route, the 6.30pm – attenuating the scenic interest, with not even a glimpse of the gloaming along the shoulder of Britain before night takes firm hold.

Next, this is the slowest train on the route. While not quite an "all stations to King's Cross", it is scheduled to stop 13 times en route. The journey takes over five hours to reach London (the fastest trip is just four hours). And it arrives only 24 minutes before midnight, rendering onward journeys tricky. And that is why it is classified informally as a "dog departure" and priced low.

For a state-owned enterprise, East Coast is commendably innovative: it recently introduced off-peak first-class tickets between Leeds, Doncaster and London with no need to book. And as all good travel providers should, East Coast Trains invites you to trade price for flexibility. Commit six weeks ahead for an unpopular departure, and you pay less for a five-hour trip than a 15-minute hop on the Heathrow Express. The train operator also rewards online booking with a discount of around 10 per cent on booking-office prices. No swizz – quite the opposite.

The rail guru Mark Smith – "The Man in Seat 61" – says the very cheapest tickets are rare on East Coast Trains, but he suggests that if you look a month or two out, tickets around the £20 mark are plentiful. Yet while East Coast Trains' share of Edinburgh-London traffic has doubled since 2006, it attracts only a quarter of the market between the Scottish and English capitals.

The firm could lure more travellers to rail by borrowing ideas from airlines – such as a "lowest fare finder", enabling you to locate easily the trains for which the £13.30 deal applies, and tailor your travel schedule accordingly.

The other innovation is to allow travellers to buy flexibility. If you have an Advance booking but decide on the day to travel by another train, your existing ticket is of worthless value. In the case of that £13.20 ticket for the last train of the day, if you have the temerity to want to catch any train other than the 6.30pm, East Coast Trains will demand £100 more than the number you first thought – charging the standard off-peak fare of £113.50, and giving no refund on the original. So you stay put, catch the train you are booked on, sulk all the way to London and vow to fly next time.

Your flexible friend

One reason easyJet can fill a dozen flights a day from Edinburgh to London is the flexibility it offers. If you are on a return trip, and your business finishes early, you can go to the sales desk at the airport and ask for a seat on an earlier flight home. (This courtesy applies to all passengers, and is nothing to do with the new "Flexi" fares described on page 19 today.) More extensive changes incur a £35 fee plus the difference in fares.

Train operators could do something similar, setting a change fee at, say, £25 for catching an "adjacent" service, ie the one before or after the booked train. Off-peak trains are rarely full. Selling such "wriggle room" would surely make money for East Coast Trains and make passengers happy?

Mark Smith of Seat61.com says the train firms don't do it because they are fearful that "If Advance fares came with similar flexibility to expensive tickets, business users could trade down."

I checked easyJet for the same journey, same date: the cheapest one-way fare from Edinburgh to Luton or Stansted was £24, with Gatwick on offer for £1 more.