Simon Calder's Holiday Helpdesk: Why can't I buy a cheap rail ticket from London to Penrith at Easter?

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Q Virgin Trains has only just released tickets for the Easter weekend, and already there are no cheap ones between Euston and Penrith.

The cheapest return journey if you buy Advance tickets is £87, which is hardly any cheaper than an off-peak return costing £95. Virgin's online live chat bod says they probably never released others. Is that normal? I guess they must be allowed to just not offer cheap tickets on busy days, but it seems a bit mean.

Camilla Martin, Clapham

A Easter is peak time for leisure travel on the railways, and on the West Coast main line Virgin knows it will easily fill every seat between Glasgow Central and London Euston, the service that calls at Penrith in northern Cumbria.

The train operator is obliged by law to sell tickets for off-peak travel (which, in railway terms, includes every day from Good Friday to Easter Monday) at £95 return. So when Virgin prices its non-regulated advance tickets, there is no incentive for the company to reduce them very much below the cost of an open off-peak ticket. The company is looking to earn the thick end of £50 on every seat.

A bit mean? Well, that’s what you get when railway-as-part-of-social-fabric (with regulated fares) collides with profit-seeking-transport-company, which is what Virgin Trains is.

At least you have some options, thanks to Britain's excellent network of long-distance buses. Megabus will get you from Victoria Coach Station to Preston and back for £20.50, and I am currently seeing plenty of Advance seats for the onward train trip to Penrith for £28 return. You will take a couple of hours longer getting there and back, but you will save almost £40. Take your pick.

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