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Train station ticket machines charging double than online booking

Same-day rail tickets were 52 per cent more expensive on average – with some up to 154 per cent pricier

Benjamin Parker
Thursday 18 January 2024 08:59 GMT
Related video: ‘Get your act together first!’ Britons fume as rail fares set to be hiked ‘yet again’

Buying train tickets from machines at UK railway stations could cost travellers more than double what they would spend by booking online, according to new research from a consumer group.

Many of the best-value fares were “unavailable or hidden” among a “bewildering” range of options, Which? found after sending mystery shoppers to stations across the country.

The price of 75 journeys were checked on the ticket machine at every station – each run by a different train operator. The would-be passenger attempted to buy the cheapest one-way ticket for travel that same day, the following morning and in three weeks’ time.

Around 150 million train journeys in 2022 were taken using tickets bought from a machine (Getty Images)

Which? found that fares purchased online were cheaper around three-quarters of the time, and that, on average, same-day journeys cost 52 per cent more from machines.

One of the biggest price differences seen was in a same-day, one-way ticket from Holmes Chapel in Cheshire to London, which was an eye-watering 154 per cent more costly when purchased from the station’s ticket machine – which charged £66, compared with the £26 online split-ticket option from Trainline.

A same-day, one-way ticket from Northampton to Cardiff can be bought online for £43 but costs £107 when bought from the machine – a 148 per cent increase.

In 2022, 12 per cent of tickets were purchased from a machine, around 150 million journeys, said Which?.

Just one in six of the 1,766 train stations under the Department for Transport’s control has a full-time ticket office; 40 per cent are staffed part-time, and 43 per cent don’t have a ticket office at all.

A huge outcry against the plan to close the vast majority of rail ticket offices saw the government U-turn on the proposals.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said that the need for modernisation of fares and ticketing was raised in the consultation on ticket office closures and will “seek to support the industry to modernise ticket machines”.

During their research, Which? found the services offered by different ticket machines could vary significantly, with passengers often facing restricted choice and as a result, higher prices.

One of the reasons tickets from machines are often more expensive is because most don’t offer “advance” fares, cheaper tariffs that are available for buying in advance of travel. Depending on the route, these can even be available up to 10 minutes before departure. However, just five of 15 machines tested by Which? offered them.

The mystery shoppers found that many machines didn’t appear to sell off-peak tickets, which could lead to passengers spending more than necessary. During a visit to Hitchin station early in the morning, the only option for a one-way ticket to York they could find was an anytime single priced at £133, even though the time they would be travelling would qualify for an off-peak fare. When they compared the journey online, it could be booked through the Trainline’s split-ticket option for just £55 off-peak.

Great Northern, the train operator responsible for the machines at Hitchin, said off-peak tickets for same-day travel could be found by selecting the “tickets for future travel”, though Which? believe that “many travellers are likely to be caught out by this quirk, given future travel is usually considered to apply to a date in the future”. Even if a traveller had found this ticket, the lack of split ticketing would have resulted in a more expensive fare.

“Our ticket machines are optimised to give people fast service for the simple journeys that most people are making,” said a spokesperson for Great Northern, which is part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), also responsible for Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express. “If that off-peak were to be placed on the home screen, customers might easily select an invalid ticket if they were in a rush.”

Using machines also proved problematic for many of the mystery shoppers trying to book tickets weeks in advance. For example, Great Western machines at major stations, including Oxford and London Paddington, only sold tickets for same-day and next-day journeys.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “The price differences we found between booking online and using station ticket machines were simply astounding. Millions of tickets are purchased using ticket machines every year, meaning that huge numbers of us are potentially paying significantly more than we need to when we commute to work or visit friends and family across the country.

“Wherever possible, we’d recommend booking train tickets online for the cheapest options, but that won’t be possible for everyone. Significant numbers of elderly people don’t have internet access at all – leaving them with little choice but to run the gauntlet of ticket machines which either don’t offer the best prices, or make it difficult to find the appropriate fares.”

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, did not provide a comment on Which?’s report, and neither did London Northwestern or Northern.

East Midlands Railway said that it has installed a number of smart kiosks across its network and is ensuring customers are able to board and buy their ticket on the train or at their destination if necessary, while Great Western Railway said that ticket machines are not intended to provide the same range of tickets as online or in-person sales, instead offering “ticket collection following a digital sale” or “walk-up fares”.

It also told Which? that “current regulations do not allow train operators to recommend split tickets from ticket machines or ticket offices”.

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