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.