By travelling off-peak, savvy rail travellers can make significant savings – but the definition of what constitutes off-peak has become confused, says Alex McWhirter

What is off-peak? By “off-peak”, I’m referring to the times when passengers travelling long distance and holding flexible, standard class tickets can benefit from a dramatically lower price.

Off-peak tickets, because of their flexibility, are ideal for the wise yet cost-conscious business traveller who can meet the time restrictions. How much can you save? Look at Virgin Trains’ pricing on the busy London-Manchester route, where a normal standard class return will set you back £332 – in contrast, an off-peak return costs only £82.40. And the £332 price isn’t a misprint. First class with Virgin Trains will set you back a whopping £475.

Another example is Great Western Railway between London and Bristol, where off-peak costs £56.50 or £71.20 compared with the normal price of £198. Or how about London to Leicester, where East Midlands Trains’ off-peak tickets cost either £59.50 or £86.50 as against £149.50?

It ought to be simple to define “off-peak”. After all, some 20 years ago, in the British Rail era, travellers knew it was cheaper to travel outside the morning rush. Nowadays, trying to ascertain off-peak timings is a complex task.

The train operating companies (TOCs) do not make it easy – publicity material is rare or non-existent, while their website displays are confusing. In fact, one suspects the TOCs would rather passengers buy restrictive Advance tickets so they can turn away those passengers without a reservation.

Success at price

Why so much confusion? In short, it’s because UK rail has changed since privatisation. Today’s industry is more commercially minded. Privatisation has doubled passenger numbers since 1997 and made UK rail Europe’s success story. But with success has come the issue of overcrowding, especially on routes to and from London. Our rail network, just like our London airports, is running out of capacity, so the TOCs use off-peak pricing as a tool to spread demand.

Unfortunately, every train operating company has a different idea of what constitutes “off-peak”. Take, for example, the popular London-Birmingham route. Here you have three TOCs in competition (two from Euston, one from Marylebone), all with different pricing and definitions of what constitutes off-peak. Indeed, with every TOC the off-peak restrictions vary depending on whether you are travelling from or to London. Travellers departing London on day trips to the regions face less onerous restrictions on the return than do regional passengers making day trips to the capital.

From London, the so-called “off-peak” times can start as early as 0711 (Chiltern Railways to Birmingham) and extend until 1030 (East Midlands heading to the Midlands and beyond). Later in the day, a regional traveller returning home from London will find the major TOCs start evening peak hours as early as 1500. They then continue until 1900. But the Londoner returning home from the regions later that day will almost always face no restrictions at all.

So the canny Mancunian on a day trip to London, unless prepared to pay substantially more, is obliged to kick their heels in Euston until the magic hour of 1900. A Geordie business person on a day trip to the capital faces paying £278 compared with £130.30 or £206.40. (London-Newcastle is almost twice as far as London-Manchester yet the prices don’t reflect the difference. There is one off-peak tariff on London-Manchester as against two for London-Newcastle.)

Need for clarity

When researching this article, I discovered that consumer bodies had complained about off-peak confusion since as far back as 2007. “There is definitely a need for greater clarity,” says a spokesman for watchdog Transport Focus. “We are asking the operators to be clear with passengers about when they use each type of ticket so they know exactly what they are buying.”

James MacColl, head of campaigns at charity Campaign for Better Transport, says: “Train operators must make it as easy as possible for passengers to understand complex off-peak time restrictions and if the operator needs to adjust the time restriction then it should make it clear to passengers to avoid confusion.”

He adds: “We need to see a much simpler way for passengers to find the cheapest ticket. There is little point in having cheap fares on offer if the system is so complicated that even ticket office staff can’t help you find them.”

In 2010, Which? reported that throughout mainland UK, the TOCs classified evening peak times as varying from as little as 30 minutes in Scotland to as much as four hours in the south of England.

Industry experts say that extending peak times or having two different off-peak fares enables a TOC to increase its revenue because more passengers will be drawn into a peak fare zone.

This, I believe, is a key point. In 2016, the government allowed TOCs to increase their regulated fares (such as off-peak returns) by 1.1 per cent. Obviously, savvy passengers will do their utmost to meet off-peak restrictions, but those who, for whatever reason, cannot meet off-peak times will be providing TOCs with a cash windfall.

David Sidebottom, passenger team director of Transport Focus, says: “We have a complex fares system and passengers tell us they want more choice when it comes to buying tickets. A flexible fares structure that offers products that reflect passengers’ needs will help people feel they are getting more value for money and help to build trust among passengers. Operators still have some work to do to show they are truly on the side of the passenger.”

Regulated and unregulated fares explained

Regulated fares account for about half of all rail journeys and they include most off-peak and all normal (peak-time) fares, as well as season tickets. Caps of regulated fares are set by the government, the current policy of which is to base them in line with the Retail Prices Index (RPI) in July of the previous year. The government allows TOCs to raise fares by an average of 1 per cent above RPI.

In 2016, the TOCs raised the cost of regulated off-peak fares by 1.1 per cent, but in January 2017 TOCs are being allowed to increase regulated fares by 1.9 per cent.

Unregulated fares comprise Advance and other promotional tariffs. Their prices are determined by the TOCs themselves and reflect the commercial law of supply and demand.