Rail ticket pricing is confusing but it’s not always the fault of the train operators. Now the government has a plan to bring clarity.

Imagine how surprised some Manchester-bound travellers were earlier this year when they arrived at London Euston. The time was just after lunch. Normally this is a period for off-peak fares on the rail network. Savvy travellers would expect the peak travel period and most expensive fares to apply between 1600 and 1900.

But because Avanti West was operating a restricted timetable (because of the pandemic) the last off-peak train departed at 1435. It meant those ‘walk up’ travellers on the 1520 service (normally the last London-Manchester off-peak train of the afternoon) now had to make a decision. Did they hang around for several hours until the next off-peak train in the evening or did they pay for an expensive ticket and travel on the 1520?

Flexible London-Manchester fares can be extremely costly even for a one-way journey in peak time. For example a peak return ticket London-Manchester costs £369.40 compared to £98.10 for off-peak. Both tickets are flexible and available to ‘walk-up’ travellers. Such illogical pricing used to exist in the airline business before low-cost carriers appeared on the scene.

Unfair fares

One cannot blame Avanti West Coast for the pricing. This enormous price gap dates back to the days of Virgin Trains (maybe earlier too) which held the West Coast Mainline (WCML) franchise for many years. In any case, such fares today are controlled by the government (rather than Avanti) under ‘emergency measures.’

Indeed, under these measures, our government collects the fares revenue from the operators (open access firms excepted – these are Grand Central, Hull Trains, Lumo and Heathrow Express) and pays them a modest management fee.

Thankfully, today Avanti has retuned its London-Manchester frequency to provide a train every 20 minutes which, I believe, is outstanding for a mainline service. But, as we saw with Virgin Trains, the longer peak period continues. This started some years ago when train operators were permitted only to raise fares by a certain percentage. Of course, they soon found they could boost revenue by extending the peak period.

Even more confusion is caused by the way peak periods can vary depending on the operator and the route. In effect, it means those people travelling to London face more ticketing restrictions than those departing the capital.

In general, regional travellers must abide by two peak periods every day (Monday to Friday) whereas those originating from London only have to deal with one.

Tariff anomalies

Why, you might ask? It’s because morning traffic flows are greater travelling to rather than from London termini.

GWR is another example. A peak return from London Paddington to Bristol costs £238.80 whereas the off-peak return 0932 departure costs £90.10 or £67.20 if taking the 1032 departure.

It is true that the operators now sell one-way fares enabling canny travellers to mix and match. With LNER London Kings Cross to Newcastle costs £172 one-way at peak times, falling to £79.10 off-peak. The same would apply to Newcastle-London.

At this point I stress that the above fares refer to flexible travel with off-peak tariffs and peak trains. Details can be found on the train operators’ websites.

Of course there are other ways to save, including Advance fares or split ticketing (where two or three separate tickets are required to reduce the total fare), but these come with a loss of flexibility and the risk with split ticketing of problems at times of service disruption.

One hopes these anomalies will be scrapped when Great British Railways comes into action. The government announced the new public body last year saying it will “integrate the railways and deliver passenger-focused travel with simpler, modern fares and reliable services”. Legislation to set up Great British Railways is expected soon.