30 Oct 2012 by Alex McWhirter

Alex McWhirter has his say on the issues facing rail passengers. This month: getting the most out of off peak rail fares.

Many rail users are losing out because of confusion surrounding the definition of “off-peak”.

Londoners know that cheaper off-peak fares become available at or after 0930, but the situation is different when travelling away from London and the south-east.

What constitutes “off-peak” not only varies between train operating companies (TOCs) but also from route to route on a TOC’s network. It even depends on the direction of travel. An executive travelling from London to Edinburgh and back faces different time restrictions compared with their counterpart travelling in the reverse direction.

Some TOCs confuse the issue further by having two levels of off-peak tariffs – in other words, normal and “super” off-peak fares. East Midlands Trains charges £103 for its 0925 and 0955 departures from St Pancras to Sheffield, but wait until 1055 and the fare falls to £67.50. First Great Western has similar tariffs. Take the London-Bristol service departing at 0830 and you will pay £64.50, but delay your trip until 1030 and it will cost £51.50.

There is no doubt that off-peak fares are highly sought after by canny passengers because of the huge savings they afford. You gain “walk-on” flexibility and pay as much as 75 per cent less than anytime or full price tickets.

Virgin Trains charges £74.20 for a London-Manchester off-peak return, compared with the anytime rate of £296, while East Coast’s Super Off-Peak London-Newcastle rate is £117.20, against anytime at £301. Virgin defines the off-peak start as being 0930 out of Euston, whereas First Great Western’s definition out of Paddington is 0815. 

Timings vary on Anglo-Scottish routes depending on whether you take the West Coast or East Coast route to Glasgow or Edinburgh. A Londoner taking the 0800 out of King’s Cross to Edinburgh pays East Coast £195 return, whereas a Virgin Trains service at that time to Glasgow from Euston would cost £324. Both TOCs have a cheaper £121.40 ticket, but it’s only valid from 0930.

The boot is on the other foot for Scottish travellers. Their off-peak fares to London can be used on most trains before 0600 and are also valid during the late afternoon peak out of the capital. That’s because Virgin Trains’ off-peak passengers starting trips to London from English cities such as Birmingham or Manchester are barred from taking late afternoon services departing Euston.

Niche operator Chiltern Railways imposes no off-peak restrictions between Marylebone and Birmingham, meaning a peak-time day trip costs £27.50, as against £158 with rival TOC Virgin from Euston.

No wonder rail users are confused. A recent survey of 1,600 passengers by ORR (the Office of Rail Regulation) found that three-quarters of respondents “were not confident what ‘off-peak’ times were”. Some 5 per cent of on-train interviewees travelling on anytime tickets realised they could have used an off-peak ticket instead as a result of the survey.

A spokesman for industry body ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) says: “Off-peak tariffs are unregulated fares. They provide the TOCs with the flexibility to meet market demands so that is why the timings will vary.”But it is not easy to discover what is off-peak and what isn’t. Ticket machines do not display this information and busy ticket office staff may not have the time to explain.

It means you must do your homework. Examine paper timetables for the relevant information or check with the growing number of rail booking websites. Making a dummy booking will display which tariffs apply to which trains. But it’s a time-consuming process, so no wonder passengers call for simpler tariffs.

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