Simon Calder: Take stock before you rail against ticket prices

Britain, I computed in this column a year ago, had the highest rail fares in Europe – equal top with Denmark, and just ahead of Germany and Ireland. But when Edward Stourton informed me and several million other listeners to last Thursday’s Today programme that “train fares in Britain are higher than anywhere else in Europe”, I nearly choked on my Kenco Sustainable Development coffee (which East Midlands Trains is serving up at a very reasonable £1.25 a cup). Why? Because of the puny pound. Prices in sterling terms in Europe are at least one-fifth higher than a year ago, making our trains look refreshingly good value.

So how did the breakfast broadcasters on Radio 4 reach the opposite conclusion? They reported a comprehensive study by Passenger Focus comparing Britain’s rail fares with those in continental Europe. The study looked at the maximum return fares from Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle to London, and concluded the average was over £250, compared with under £150 for similar journeys to the capital in the next nearest nation, Germany. But the comparison gives little credit to UK’s train operators – and travellers.

Three objections: first, you might imagine that when Passenger Focus says British fares are 1.87 times higher than in Germany, it means you would pay an average of 87 per cent more for a comparable ticket. But it doesn’t. The fares quoted are relative to “national disposable income” for 2007. Fare levels in, for example, France, were bumped up by 6 per cent (because, at the time, the Brits enjoyed marginally higher earnings than the French), while Swiss fares were cut by a quarter. “To make comparisons meaningful, you have to take into account the ability of people to pay,” said Guy Dangerfield, the passenger manager for Passenger Focus, and the man who led the research. “That was the principal of adjusting for disposable income.”

Next, travellers on the Continent have nothing like the same range of rail options as the British. If you have to make a last-minute, peak-time journey from Birmingham to London and back, and don’t feel like paying the standard open return of £132 on Virgin Trains from New Street station, then take a seven-minute walk over to Moor Street station and book the same flexible ticket for £50 less on Chiltern Railways – ironically owned by Deutsche Bahn (German Railway). Yes, the trip will take about two hours, rather than 80 minutes on Virgin, but at least you have the choice. Rail passengers in Belgium, France, Germany and all the countries to Greece do not. Neither do they have intense competition from airlines; the £266 standard open return from Newcastle to London looks absurd against fares available on British Airways and easyJet (with a last-minute fare of about £145 return from Tyneside to Stansted).

Finally, most travellers who pay the outlandish prices quoted by train operators for peak-hour travel to and from London are desperate, lazy or on expenses (probably some of them tick all three boxes). For the rest of us, planning a little ahead and/or being flexible about departure times is sufficient to reduce fares dramatically.

The new research accepts that advance tickets are cheaper in Britain than elsewhere, but ignores the very best deals. My most recent tickets from London to Manchester and Sheffield cost £1 and £1.50 respectively using the Virgin Trains and Megatrain websites, but such fares are not mentioned. “We took into account all permanently available fares, which excludes Megatrain, because technically those are outside the normal fares structure,” says Mr Dangerfield.

Plenty is still wrong with Britain’s rail pricing: if you miss your train, you can throw away your Advance ticket. Passenger Focus recommends giving late-running travellers (or those who want to catch an earlier one) the right to upgrade the original ticket to a more expensive fare rather than wasting it. But much is looking good – and, as business travel declines, leisure travel deals should get even better.

America by train

The nation that was built by the railroad is now taking a leaf out of Britain’s book by offering much cheaper advance-purchase tickets. One of the few successful routes on the Amtrak US network is the Acela Express line from Washington DC to New York City and Boston. Until now, fares have been very high: a minimum of $133 (£95) one-way between the US capital and New York.

This week, though, prices have fallen by a quarter. If you book at least two weeks ahead, Washington-New York fares fall to $99 (£70), with New York-Boston at $79 (£56).

Two new rail services have been launched in the US, according to the latest Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable. In Portland, Oregon, the Westside Express Service has finally opened (after the city had to bail out the company making the rolling stock).

Amtrak has a new link from New York’s Penn station to Atlantic City. A one-way ticket costs $35 (£25). And you get to travel on a lucky train: the name of the Atlantic City Express Service abbreviates to Aces.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?