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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
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
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea