Legal ways to cut rail fares (revisited)

first-great-westernWith such a breadth of subjects to cover, we do try to avoid going over old ground, but this one really was too good to ignore. Back in A to B 19 (August 2000), we outlined how to save money on rail fares by using ‘split tickets’.The theory is quite simple and perfectly legal – as a general rule, rail fares are set according to the time of day to provide maximum returns for the railway company concerned. Peak fares are known as Open Singles or Returns, and represent the legal fare for the journey concerned. On less busy stretches of line, and outside peak hours on the busier bits, there are all manner of concessionary fares available, the principle ‘walk-on’ fares being the Saver at about half the cost of an Open Return, and the cheaper, but slightly more restrictive Super Saver.These clever marketing devices were invented back in the good old days by British Rail, to maximize revenue for its shareholders (you and I, in other words), and keep as many travellers off the roads as possible, which surely, is what railways are all about? By contrast, today’s private railway companies are looking for profit rather than full trains, and this change of emphasis has seen most Open Return fares spiral through the roof (because the ‘business sector’ will pay it), with associated attacks on the conditions and availability of Savers and discount cards (because Saver fare levels are protected by law, but the conditions of carriage are not).

In a perfect world (see most countries elsewhere in Europe) the Government would be reducing road congestion by keeping fares low and investing in railway infrastructure to increase capacity, but in the UK, limited track space and shorter trains leave these crude financial controls as the only option available.

Open Return fares in and out of London at peak times can exceed 35p per mile. If you’re travelling, say, 12 miles into London each day, on busy trains over congested track, this makes sense, with the two-way fare of (12 x 2 x 35p) £8.40 representing reasonable value against the alternatives. Regular travellers can travel for much less with a season ticket, and after around 9.30am, prices plummet to 12p per mile, or even less with railcard discounts.That’s the free market – think of it as a peak-hour Congestion Charge.

However, it all becomes illogical and a bit unfair for longer distance commuters.The track and trains might only be congested for the last 15 miles of your journey, but you’ll be asked to pay the same 35p per mile, all the way from the distant shires.With some early morning trains running virtually empty for hundreds of miles, this plainly makes little economic sense, but you can be sure that someone somewhere is receiving a profitable subsidy. Like it or not, that’s the distorted market known as railway privatisation.

Split Tickets

Note the careful wording above: ‘You’ll be asked to pay X’. In fact, you are perfectly entitled to pay a cheap ‘country’ rate for the quiet portion of your journey, switching to the peak rate for the last busy miles into London.This is the principle of ‘split’ ticketing.You buy two or more separate tickets for the journey, which is within the rules, provided the train stops at the intermediate station or stations.You don’t need to get on or off, but you must obtain all the necessary tickets in advance. Free market principles, once again, but this time acting in favour of the consumer, so less widely publicised.

Phone the rail information line, and you will be quoted the full Open Return fare at peak times, but split ticket options are available on most long distance trains into London and other big cities – finding the boundaries just takes a little research. Back in August 2000, we provided Didcot and Newbury as West Country examples.Thus, instead of paying £71 for an Open Return from Castle Cary to London, the split ticket fares totalled:

Castle Cary-Newbury-Castle Cary (Saver Return) £16.70
Newbury-London (Open Single) £14.50
London-Newbury (Open Single with Network Card discount) £9.55
TOTAL: £40.75

It’s a measure of how rapidly the ticket situation has got out of control, that the unprotected Open Return fare has since risen to £83 – an increase of 16% in 21/2 years – while the partially protected split ticket combination has risen to £42.30 – a more reasonable 4%. Eventually even a company as poorly managed as First Great Western had to notice that some 400 new passengers were apparently commuting from the West to Newbury.The company may have been earning more in fares than before, but it proceeded to put a peak hour restriction on the cheap Newbury fare, killing the split-ticket option.

…Complicated? Well, yes, but probably worthwhile for a saving of £28…

The Great Western main line. Tickets are expensive close to London where trains are full, but the railway company (like most others) will charge you the most expensive fare, no matter where you start your journey. Commuter trains regularly run virtually empty from Plymouth to Newbury


The Carnet Solution

We’ve argued for years that the answer is to provide books of ‘carnet’ tickets for irregular commuters. As with a season ticket, you’d pay in advance for a number of discounted journeys, but with the flexibility to make the journeys when you wished, rather than on consecutive days. Great Western has finally and grudgingly agreed to consider a carnet solution, but in the meantime, we’re determined to help the company keep its trains reasonably profitable, so we’ve come up with a new split ticket option:

Castle Cary-Pewsey-Castle Cary (Saver Return) £13.10
Pewsey-London-Pewsey (Saver Return) £25.20
Total: £38.30

This option (yes, despite a fare increase in the meantime, it’s actually cheaper than the August 2000 version) only works on selected peak hour trains, but the following more complex option is valid any time:

Castle Cary-Pewsey-Castle Cary (Saver Return) £13.10
Pewsey-Newbury-Pewsey (Open Return) £16.00
Newbury-London (Open Single) £15.60
London-Newbury (Open Single with Network Card discount) £10.30
Total: £55.00

Complicated? Well, yes, but probably worthwhile for a saving of £28 over the Open Return fare.The problem for First Great Western (and any other greedy and unimaginative companies that might be reading), is that once customers start playing the free market game, nothing is sacred.Take the Castle Cary-London off-peak fare of £36. Can it be beaten? Of course it can! You can travel on the same off-peak trains with the following tickets:

Castle Cary-Newbury-Castle Cary (Cheap Day Return) £14.00
Newbury-London-Newbury (Cheap Day Return with Network Card discount) £9.30
Total: £23.30

There is nothing simple about rail fares any more, and with a bit of research, you can usually save quite a bit of money.For example, you can often travel on slower cheaper trains through restricted stations, then hop on to the express once you’re back in the country. Season tickets can be used as part of a split ticket package too.

If your local rail company is asking an exorbitant amount for a particular journey – especially where trains are running relatively empty – it’s worth finding out whether a split-ticket option exits. If not, you can lobby for change by speaking to the local press and/or your local Rail Passenger Council. Please bear in mind that from the moment you start doing anything complex, your morals must be self-evidently beyond reproach. Always purchase tickets before departure, and make it clear to railway staff what you are doing to avoid misunderstandings. Happy and cost-effective travelling!

All staffed stations are obliged to sell any tickets or combination of tickets. But to avoid mayhem at the ticket office, it’s better to make complex purchases over the internet.This is also a good place to check ticket prices and conditions.We’d suggest (good if there’s a bicycle involved) or which also runs internet services for some train operating companies