UK 'Anytime' rail fares to rise: Train from Cornwall to Caithness? Don’t worry, it’ll only cost a grand

Top fares to be capped as standard rates rise, writes Simon Calder

When Britain returns to work in the New Year, most passengers aboard the 8.20am train from Aberdeen to Penzance may be dismayed to find that the standard class “Anytime” fare has risen by £31, to £499 return. But those in first class will celebrate an almost equal and opposite reduction – with the fare falling by £30, to a flat £1,000.

The Independent has discovered that some UK rail fares are to be cut by 20 per cent in 2013 – but only for first-class travellers on the longest routes. For the first time, the most expensive train fares are to be capped from 2 January. No journey will cost more than £500 one-way, or £1,000 return. On the same day, standard-class passengers face fare increases averaging 4.2 per cent – above the rate of inflation.

Some other European countries, such as Belgium and Germany have long imposed a maximum fare. The limits are considerably lower than in Britain: the equivalent of £366 for a first-class return in Germany, which has a much bigger network, and just £50 return in Belgium – far less than a first-class return ticket between London and Reading.

In Britain, at present, the first-class fare cap affects only journeys between northern Scotland and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. The UK’s most expensive ticket, from Newquay to Thurso, is currently £1,261 return. That fare drops by 20.3 per cent.

Other examples from south-west England to Scotland include St Ives to Mallaig (currently £1,157), Truro to Fort William (£1,109) and Taunton to Wick (£1,013). First-class passengers from Plymouth to Inverness or Aberdeen will save just £1 each way when the cap takes effect.

Edmund King – the AA president, visiting professor of transport at Newcastle University and a season-ticket holder (standard class) – said: “First-class passengers will not notice a £30 cut in fares whilst standard-class passengers will struggle to pay the increase. This looks like a first-class fiasco which really needs to be reversed up the track and withdrawn from service. It is completely off the rails.”

But the fare reductions were welcomed by Anthony Smith, chief executive of the rail watchdog, Passenger Focus. “Passengers will welcome anything that makes the complex fares system easier to understand – even on infrequently used long-distance services. We would like to see the industry continue this good work by reducing complexity across all fares.”

Unlike standard-class fares, first-class prices are unregulated; train operators can fix them at any level they wish. Mark Smith, founder of the rail website, said: “Ordinary mortals are unlikely to buy such extravagant tickets unless the company is paying – there are far cheaper fares available.”

The cap may tempt business travellers from the plane to the train. Even the most expensive air fares are generally cheaper than first-class Anytime rail tickets. Between Newquay and Inverness, the maximum Flybe fare of £848 return (via Gatwick) undercuts the existing rail fare by £325. The New Year cut in ticket prices will reduce this difference to £152.

The big difference with the new British initiative is that both Belgium and Germany impose a significantly lower fare cap on second-class fares.