Rail fare rise: New price hikes leave some intercity passengers paying more than £1 a mile

Exclusive: The unprecedented ticket price comes after a terrible year for millions of rail travellers

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 01 January 2019 18:53 GMT
Simon Calder on 2019 rail fare increase

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The latest rail fare rise, which takes effect on the first working day of 2019, has pushed the cost of intercity travel for some commuters above £1 a mile.

The Anytime standard-class fare for the 24-mile journey between Swindon and Didcot Parkway rises on 2 January by 80p to £24.20, a price of £1.01 for each mile.

The GWR fare is the only option for commuters who want a “walk-up” ticket for the 17-minute journey between 6am and 9am.

The Heathrow Express remains Britain’s priciest train at £1.70 a mile. But for a significant intercity journey to rise above a pound per mile is unprecedented.

The 172-mile trip from Watford Junction to Stockport on Virgin Trains also exceeds £1 a mile. The fare rises by £7 to £175.50, representing a rate of £1.02. But a rational traveller would buy a London-Manchester ticket, which is cheaper yet covers the same journey and more.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “This example underlines the need for a radical overhaul of the fares structure. We need part-time season tickets, deals to fill up off-peak seats and a modern ticketing system to suit the way we travel now.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “These figures do not take into account the full range of fares available. The UK has some of the cheapest advance fares in Europe and many of these journeys can be made for a fraction of the price.”

Rail fares across Britain traditionally rise on the first working day of January. In 2019 “regulated” fares have increased by an average of 3.1 per cent – fractionally below the retail price index (RPI) for July 2018.

This category includes season tickets in the London area, Anytime fares around major cities and many off-peak returns on long-distance journeys. Other “walk-up” prices typically rise by the same percentage.

Post-Christmas trains marred by engineering works and strikes

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “Wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation and yet the train companies, and their chum the transport secretary Chris Grayling, are pushing up prices yet again.”

Robert Nisbet, regional director of the Rail Delivery Group, which represent the rail industry, told The Independent: “Nobody wants to pay more to travel but money from fares is crucial to supporting the investment in our railway that passengers want and the economy needs.

“This will deliver improved carriages, better connections and more reliable journeys.”

The fares rise comes after a terrible year for millions of rail passengers.

Travellers in several regions have endured a series of strikes over the role of guards, while shortages of train crews, overrunning engineering projects and delayed rolling stock have caused problems from southern England to northern Scotland.

Worst of all for commuters who depend on Thameslink and Northern Rail was the botched introduction of new schedules in May 2018.

Nigel Harris, managing editor of Rail magazine, called it “the most chaotic, fundamental and humiliating failure it has been my misfortune to witness in nearly 40 years as a rail journalist”.

Statistics from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) show that 2018 is proving the poorest year for punctuality since 2005.

One in seven trains have been recorded as “late” by the industry’s performance measures of punctuality, which means five minutes for shorter journeys and 10 minutes for longer-distance services.

Harish Patel, Unite’s national officer for the rail industry, said: “Every day the case for the public ownership of the rail industry grows stronger, especially after the woeful performance of 2018.

“Fares should have been frozen. The 3.1 per cent rise is an insult.”

From Preston to Manchester, a journey on the Northern Rail blighted by overrunning engineering work, the timetable fiasco and strikes in 2018, an annual season ticket rises by 3.2 per cent from £2,396 to £2,472.

Season-ticket holders from the prime minister’s constituency of Maidenhead will pay an extra £96 for a year’s travel to London, with a price of £3,188.

A flexible annual season ticket to the capital from Epsom, whose MP is the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, goes up by £68 to £2,296.

The TUC says that an average wage-earner commuting from Chelmsford to London pays 13 per cent of their earnings for a season ticket, while a comparable commute costs just 2 per cent of average salary in France and 4 per cent in Germany.

The unrestricted London-Manchester one-way fare goes up by £6 to £175. Between Edinburgh and Glasgow an Anytime single rises by 50p (3.5 per cent) to £14.90.

But an off-peak single goes up by only 30p to £13.20, an increase of 2.3 per cent, because of a pledge by the Scottish government to cap fare rises at one per cent below RPI outside rush hours.

Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who runs the Seat61.com global rail website, said: “Britain has the most commercially aggressive fares in Europe, with the highest fares designed to get maximum revenue from business travel, and some of the lowest fares designed to get more revenue by filling more seats.”

The RMT union general secretary, Mick Cash, warned in his new year’s message that industrial action will “ratchet up” in the long-running dispute over the role of guards.

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