The Man Who Pays His Way: Britain is top of the European rail league table – and not in a good way

No timetables, only rumours: that is Charles Nicholl's description of rail travel in Colombia. Train passengers in parts of Britain will recognise the notion, with overrunning engineering work and above-inflation fare hikes making New Year travel miserable. Only a cruise aboard the good ship Norovirus has less appeal.

You pay too much for rail travel and get too little in return. Equally, the non-train-using taxpayer may rage against subsidising pound-for-pound the fares collected at the ticket office: fare-paying passengers cover only half the cost of running the railway.

Trains have many advantages over most other forms of transport, especially in terms of the environment, aesthetics and safety. They also provide usually swift and reliable mobility essential to society and the economy. That helps to explain why railways are thriving in many parts of the world, even though they rarely pay their way.

Just how does Britain compare with our European neighbours in terms of fares? After studying some data prepared by the experts at Thomas Cook Timetables and conducting extra research, the Euro-rail league can now be revealed. Thomas Cook's European Rail Timetable lists all the major EU nations, from Austria to Slovenia in which second-class one-way fares are fixed on a sliding scale (Switzerland also makes a guest appearance). But in eight countries, including Britain, there is no such consistency; fares are decreed for each individual journeys and type of trains.

So I filled in the blanks, by finding fares for typical journeys of 100 kilometres (62 miles) in those nations. The UK example is from Preston to Leeds. (On several occasions, finding journeys of exactly 100 kilometres proved impossible, so I allowed a leeway of a couple of kilometres.)

Because supplements are often charged for high-speed services, "classic" trains were chosen – such as TER or Corail in France – rather than TGVs. Then I converted the fares to euros (the currency in which most countries' trains are priced), rounding up or down.

Guess who is top? Britain, of course – but jointly with Denmark, and only just ahead of Germany and Ireland. The Preston-to-Leeds fare of £14.40 is pretty much what you would pay to travel on Danish Rail from Roskilde to Nyborg, on Deutsche Bahn from Hanover to Göttingen or Irish Rail from Dublin to Dundalk. Austria and Switzerland are just a couple of euros cheaper.

Finland and France tie at €14 for 100 kilometres, though high-speed trains in France cost considerably more. Belgium is comfortably mid-table at €12, though with a maximum fare of €18 for a domestic journey of any length. It is as if you were in a taxi where the meter stops ticking at the 146-kilometre mark.

The next trio comprises Portugal (€10), Italy and Sweden (both €9). Of the Eastern European nations surveyed, Poland is most expensive at €7 – just ahead of Hungary at €6 and the Czech Republic and Romania at €5. Making a guest appearance amid all these former communist nations is the cheapest Western European country, Spain; Barcelona to Girona costs a mere €6.

At the foot of the table is Slovakia at only €4 – nearly one-fifth of the price in Britain for extremely civilised travel through beautiful scenery. And €4 also happens to be the price of 24 hours of unlimited travel on trains and buses throughout Luxembourg, the EU's smallest and richest nation. Or upgrade to first class (€6).

OUR NEIGHBOURS may offer lower standard fares than Britain, but they lack the range of extremely low fares for people prepared to book in advance and travel off-peak. On the back page of today's news section, the extraordinary value offered by Megatrain is mentioned: from London Waterloo to Exeter St David's for £1.50. You could, if you prefer, pay £89.50 for a standard open single, or a range of a dozen different prices in between.

A common complaint among passengers is that train fares are too complicated – but this protest has been echoing for decades, since well before rail privatisation. The black art of coaxing us on to trains with spare capacity, while suppressing demand at peak times, demands marketing sophistication that you may think looks a lot like sophistry.

EVERYONE, RAIL traveller or not, now knows that the centre of the lamentable post-New Year railway disarray was the West Coast Main Line; no one, though, has questioned how the railway from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow earned the title. None of these places is on the west coast of Britain. True, for about a mile near Morecambe, rail travellers can get a glimpse of the bay (or miles of mud, if the tide is out). But it hardly compares with the East Coast Main Line, which reveals stunning stretches of coast from Alnmouth northwards.

If the line from London to the West Midlands and beyond must have "coast" in its official title, then it should be the North Coast Main Line. Expresses from Euston race to the port at Holyhead, with long stretches along the coast of North Wales. Perhaps Network Rail will re-brand the line to try to shrug off all the bad publicity.

We're getting there... at a pound a mile

Britain boasts the single most expensive train service in the world, the Heathrow Express from London Paddington to the airport: less than 15 miles for £15.50. Pay on board, and the fare rises by a further £2. At least the Gatwick Express from London Victoria invites you to "buy your ticket on board at no extra cost". Which is what I planned on Monday morning. But a stern ticket collector on the platform insisted I buy before boarding the train.

Why, I wondered?

"We get a lot of drunk people who refuse to buy a ticket."

Perhaps, I soberly speculated, they assume that the £16.90 one-way ticket is a fine, not a fare. Anyway, to source the obligatory ticket I tracked down the dedicated Gatwick Express ticket machine on the platform at Victoria. It sells tickets to anywhere you like, so long as it is Gatwick.

Yet just as you are about to press "Buy", a warning flashes up on the screen that the ticket "is not valid on First Great Western services due to depart from Paddington 1615-1915 on weekdays".

This helpful alert is the reddest of herrings. You probably know that there are no trains from Paddington to Gatwick. But the average foreign visitor is likely to be befuddled, and next time may opt to spend his or her €22 on 550km of rail travel through Slovakia rather than a half-hour hop to Sussex.

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