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Trains are slowly getting better. But rail fares remain a shambles


Blackfriars station, straddling the Thames in central London, is a visionary structure. Rail magazine recently rewarded its transformation “from a down-at-heel secondary terminal into an iconic, modern facility”.

The centrepiece of the Thameslink trans-London rejuvenation has entrances on both north and south banks of the river. But whichever the hapless traveller wanting one of the four trains each hour to Gatwick airport chooses, the ticket machines will prove baffling.

Whether you are a seasoned rail passenger or a befuddled foreign tourist, if the airport is your destination then all you probably want is the cheapest fare, price £10.70. But the machines will offer you three different ticket types, without revealing the cost. The one you want is coded “Not Via Underground”. As opposed to “Not Gatwick Express” (referring to a train from a completely different London station, and costing 50 per cent more), or “Any Permitted Route” (twice the price). As the minutes tick down to your train, good luck with pressing the right button.

As passengers and the Labour party rail against the soaring cost of train travel, the real problem remains unaddressed: dragging the fares structure into the 21st century. Should you have a few minutes to spare in the Blackfriars ticket hall, you can find plenty more madness hardwired into the system.

From today, an off-peak single to Brighton costs £18.10. A day return? Just 10 pence more.

From London to Manchester, an off-peak single is £85.90, with a return valid on any day in the next month adding only £1. And anyone in Bristol who is unimpressed with the new £105.70 single fare to London Paddington can deploy the “Didcot Dodge”: buying two separate tickets to save £43. No need to change trains — just make sure you are aboard one of the many Bristol-London trains that stop at the Oxfordshire town.

I have not cherry-picked anomalies to support my case; examples of such eccentricities abound across Britain. They make no economic sense in allocating scarce resources.

But they have remained in place for a couple of decades, through Labour, Coalition and Tory administrations, because politicians lack the cojones to construct a fares regime that is fair to passengers and the taxpayers who support the railway.

At privatisation in the 1990s, some fares were deemed to be so socially and politically sensitive that they needed to be regulated: standard class weekly season tickets in England and Wales, most fares around London and off-peak returns nationwide. And these “baked in” prices, which currently rise in line with inflation, distort the market. At the root of the problem: politicians’ reluctance to make the tough choices needed to reform a system that is not fit for purpose.

And that is partly because there has been no coherent discussion about the purpose of the railway.

Should trains provide an efficient inter-city alternative to the car for business and leisure travel? Or connect disparate communities? Or facilitate economic growth and attractive lifestyles while limiting environmental damage by encouraging commuting by rail?

The answer, of course, is all three. Indeed that single morning train from Bristol to Paddington performs all three tasks: a high-speed link to the capital for those who need it; a service between the Wiltshire towns of Chippenham and Swindon; and carrying commuters from the fringes of the Home Counties into London.

The “Didcot Dodge” exploits the fact that per-mile prices for the last two types are lower than for inter-city journeys. On other lines, the trade-off between time and money is laughably acute. The way to avoid the painful £216 anytime return from Stafford to London Euston is to travel off-peak, whereupon the fare falls by 70 per cent.

But because off-peak returns are regulated at levels below what the market would sustain, Virgin Trains has made them progressively more difficult to obtain by restricting the times of travel. The first off-peak train from Stafford arrives a minute before noon, and the rush hour heading north – when cheap deals are not available – now extends for almost four hours.

Predictably, the first off-peak train from Euston, at 7.10pm, is far more crowded than the preceding trains.

South of the river, commuter trains into Waterloo station in London, the busiest in Europe, are rationed by unpleasantness: with season-ticket fares nailed down, the only variable is how much a passenger wants a seat and how much of a crush they are prepared to tolerate. Price could be used to give everyone a journey that is either cheaper or more comfortable.

No political party has shown any appetite for starting a sensible discussion about rewarding commuters who are prepared to arrive at the London terminus before 8am or after 9am with slightly cheaper tickets, and asking those who insist on getting to Waterloo during that peak hour to pay more.

“Super-peak” pricing should be part of a national debate about how to manage demand for a network whose core is rapidly approaching its bicentenary.

In 1996, when the first privatised train ran from Twickenham to Waterloo, easyJet had barely got off the ground and buying travel online was in its infancy. Twenty-one years on, passengers are attuned to buying travel instantly without the need for the 19th-century concept of a printed ticket).

We understand that the price for a seat from A to B depends on demand from other passengers. And that it defies logic that the fare should depend on whether or not the traveller wants to return the same way from B to A.

Single-leg pricing – the only rational solution – will eventually prevail. A politician brave enough to say so deserves a first-class return.