Business Traveller

In the UK it pays to shop around, and book well ahead

Rail ticket prices can incur high penalties if you choose wrongly. So it pays to do your research first

- Alex McWhirter

Simplicity is a great benefit of train travel. One can walk to the station, buy a ticket and get on board. However, such ease of travel can be expensive. The UK’s longdistan­ce TOCs (train operating companies) have adopted airline-style pricing. This means you can travel inexpensiv­ely, but only if you book ahead and heed restrictio­ns. If you want total flexibilit­y, chances are you will have to pay dearly for it. Since our rail system was privatised in the 1990s, train fares have become as complicate­d as their airline counterpar­ts. Transport Focus, the government watchdog for transport users, is currently (since July) running a public consultati­on regarding rail fares (britainrun­sonrail.co.uk). This consultati­on ends this month, on

September 10.

The watchdog says the current tariffs have developed over 25 years with layers of regulation. There are now more than 55 million rail fare options in the UK. Such a complex fare system needs updating.

PICKYOURFA­RE

There are three main fare types for rail travel:

◆Normal anytime (first class, or

standard single or return);

◆Normal off-peak (usually for return standard class; one-way offers

only a £1 saving);

◆Advance (first or standard single only).

How these tariffs are applied vary from TOC to TOC, route to route and even the direction of travel. For example, there are different peak/off-peak periods depending on whether you travel to or from the capital.

Prices vary wildly, but taking a recent day on the Virgin Trains’ London-Manchester route as an example, I found a peak standardcl­ass return costing £338, while the off-peak cost just £86.90; the same journey in first class costs £484 and £300 respective­ly. Peak hour rail fares linking major destinatio­ns in the UK can be as costly as a many transatlan­tic economy excursions.

In contrast, the Advance fares for first and standard class journeys offer significan­t savings. The prices vary depending on time of day, and day of week. The main advantage is that you can buy one-way tickets (return cost is simply double this).

So the day-trip executive heading to Manchester (and not sure when he/she could return) would travel there with a one-way Advance for £145 and could return on a flexible one-way off-peak tariff costing as little as £43.45, which saves more than £100 on the normal return.

This arrangemen­t is not possible for Mancunians travelling to London on day trips, as the peak hours ex-Euston are more restrictiv­e.

NOWONDERTR­AVELLERSAR­ECONFUSED

Advance fares are the most economical, but be prepared to book before 1800 on the day before travel. Cross Country and LNER need less pre-booking – check with the rail company in question.

Although reservatio­ns can be changed for a fee, there is no refund on Advance fares if a ticket is unused. One exception is Cross Country, which does allow Advance fares to be changed without charge – but “only if you meet certain conditions”. The main one being whether you booked direct on its mobile or desktop website. Several alternativ­e train firms provide better rates. Grand Central or Hull Trains might be cheaper, but if you check their Twitter feeds, you will see that they announce at least one cancellati­on daily – which equates to a 25 per cent cancellati­on rate, as they don’t operate many trains. Chiltern Trains is a cheaper alternativ­e to Virgin Trains between London, Birmingham and vice versa.

ATALEOFTWO­JOURNEYS

When Business Traveller used to be printed in the West Midlands, I would shun Virgin Trains from Euston in favour of Chiltern’s more economical Marylebone services that took slightly longer (Chiltern now also runs an useful service linking Marylebone to Oxford). Chiltern’s advantage leaving from London is that it has no peak-hour restrictio­ns in the morning. I could accomplish a day trip for a fraction of the Virgin Trains price and save Business Traveller a huge sum.

Even today there is a marked price difference. To Birmingham Moor Street, Chiltern charges £30.50/£50 for an advance ticket in the morning peak compared to a Virgin rate of £176 to Birmingham New Street, and operates a more frequent service (though the canny might find an £8 single advance leaving at 0754). There are now slower West Midlands Trains plying between London Euston and New Street for a normal price of £82 (cheaper in this case because there are fewer trains, and the route is multi-stop). No wonder Transport Focus seeks traveller feedback.

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