Just how difficult is it to buy a ticket or more specifically the right ticket? Well for a change here is a little consumer affairs hitting the pages of Dawlish Beach. This is real! this is this week! And this is headache creating frustration and pure bafflement!
If you are still with me then let me explain. This is an exercise that many of you would have experienced. A long journey coming up and the sensible option is to take the train. Exactly as many do when visiting the South West for their well earned holidays.
You really would think that it’s easy. Go to National Rail, type in your departure point, destination and dates. Tick the return and fill in the relevant details. Press the button and in front of you should be the cheapest and most convenient option. Sadly it’s not true but how many have questioned those prices? I contacted a friend of mine who was having a very similar issue and this next section is from Steve. It’s a complete response to the challenge i set him to find me a cheaper option.

When was the last time you went online to book advance train tickets? I’m willing to bet you entered your departure station, then your destination, looked for the cheapest ticket to suit your journey time, probably two singles. You then paid for them, sat back, relaxed and felt pleased with yourself for having done a good job. Well sorry to burst your bubble, but in all likelihood you were royally robbed!.

Let me explain. Back in the early 2000’s when I was a guard on Southeastern a chap came up to me and asked for a return from Sittngbourne to Meopham, then a return from Meopham to London. When I raised my eyebrows he told me to compare the total of those fares to the price of a return to London from Sittingbourne. I did, and realised the clever chap was saving over five pound. That was my first experience of split ticketing. I’ve been using it myself since. So have others, so much so there are now websites that do the hard work for you, so they say. Sometimes they do, but more often than not they don’t.

GWR retro livery travelling the Paddington to Penzance route

Let’s start with a simple example. I will shortly have to travel from Norwich to Boston in Lincolnshire to pick up a car. I checked the single fare from Norwich, which is a jaw dropping £51. I then tried splitting the fare at Grantham, where I would have to change. That got it down to £47, but if I split the fare at Peterborough I can do it for £29. Ridiculous isn’t it, and you have to ask why it is allowed to happen. Why isn’t the Advance Single fare from Norwich – Boston £29? It’s all one operator after all.

So I boasted about that on Twitter (@busandtrainpage if you want to give me a follow), and was contacted by a rather nice chap who was pulling hs hair out trying to get a cheap fare for one of his offspring and partner who are travelling from Peterborough to Aviemore in late August for a week, traveling on consecutive Saturdays. Virgin Trains East Coast, now LNER were quoting around £200 return for the pair – that with a railcard. Could I do any better? I took up the challenge.

First of all you have to know which operators are the cheapest, and be prepared to be a little flexible on your times. Sometimes it’s possible to split fares on the same train, but not that often. The first obvious place to split the journey was Edinburgh, as Scotrail have some incredibly good advance fares. I found a Single to Aviemore from Edinburgh for £15.60 (all fares quoted are for two passengers with railcard). So would that make the Peterborough – Edinburgh section cheaper. Not really unless they wanted to sit at Edinburgh for four hours. But split the journey again at Newcastle, using Crosscountry to get to Edinburgh and that really did save a lot.

In short I got the return trip down to £120, a saving of 40%, which is not to be sniffed at. The ticket split website quoted me £193 so I beat them hands down. But it’s wrong. I know what I’m doing – I know where to look for the cheap fares, and which operators have the better deals. Most passengers don’t, and if the cheapest tickets are not advertised or sold then Laws are being broken and passengers ripped off. Something needs to be done. Unfortunately when it’s done it might not be in our favour.

A review of the rail ticketing and fares structure has been ordered by the Rail Delivery Group, with the intention to simplify everything and eradicate ticket anomalies. Will that mean that my Single from Norwich to Boston be reduced to £29? Probably not. Some railway commentators are predicting the opposite, that the cheap single tickets will be increased so the total split fares match the through fare. Obviously in an ideal world they should match the through fare, but it is that through fare that should be reduced so passengers benefit.

So what is the solution? What would be an ideal fares structure? For a start the basic fare should be on a “per mile” basis, with zones, similar to London. The more zones you travel, the cheaper the tariff per mile. That would eradicate split ticketing in an instant, and everyone would pay the same regardless of operator. Operators would still be able to offer promotional fares, and advance fares could still be cheaper, but longer distance fares would still be cheaper than multiple split fares.

Secondly scrap all current Railcards and introduce a National Railcard, available to anyone for off peak travel. Too many trains run empty during off peak hours and that would encourage growth in those times. There are so many Railcards at the moment with differing conditions it’s a nightmare for those controlling revenue.

Just those two measures would simplify everything at a stroke, and help the poor passenger, who, let’s not forget, as the Department of Transport and many of the operating companies seem to have forgotten, the railway is run for. Without passengers there is no railway so stop ripping them off. Any other business would be prosecuted for hiding cheap prices. It’s about time the railway was brought into order, and those running the railway held accountable. It’s our money they are stealing.

I hope all that happens. But I confess I will miss the feeling of utter glee when I find the cheap fares and “get one over them”!

Cross Country trains also bring many people on long journeys to the South West

So after that from Steve are you happy that you are paying the cheapest option for your journey? These are the suggestions that we make before you settle on a price.

  • Buy a Railcard. This will save you 30% instantly and there are many different ones to suit you. The cost of the Railcard is very often less than the amount you will ultimately be saving and it lasts for 12 months. A sound investment.
  • Be flexible in times and days if possible. Off peak tickets are much cheaper and a set return is much cheaper than an open return.
  • Look at the cost for a single ticket for each direction. These are often cheaper than a return ticket.
  • Break your journey on paper. Check the individual cost of segments and add them up. It will be a surprise how much cheaper this can work out. Just ensure that your train is due to stop at any break points!
  • Stick to the exact trains that you have used to work out your cost. Taking a different one may well invalidate your ticket.
  • Buy your tickets as far in advance as possible. If you leave it to the week you travel the cost will be significantly higher.

Now that we have covered the basics of how to save money for your ice creams lets look at customer service.

New GWR class 802’s are due to start running this Summer.

I was becoming very confused when trying to find the right tickets and the best cost. Well the train operating companies all have their own twitter accounts as do National Rail. I thought i’d contact them to see if they could assist me. I wrote similar messages to National Rail and to Virgin East Coast, explaining the confusion and the much cheaper option of splitting tickets. To be fair, National Rail took a little time but sent me links to cheaper direct options which showed they had put a little effort in to the response. As for the now defunct Virgin East Coast? I received a blunt response of, ” I’d suggest you look on our website”. Wow! really? customer service and help with anything? I told them the response was appalling but they just ignored that altogether. I took it up with the press office and they promised that someone would get back to me. It never happened and I’ve given up waiting.

I wanted a response and so i decided to give the folks at GWR a chance as they clearly have an interest in our area. They were very good! A bit of explanation as to why they can not help with split tickets.

Getting through the ticket barrier with the right ticket – Picture from GWR

“Train Operating Companies set the fare for the routes they manage, and some journeys will  be made across a number of TOC boundaries (for example to Birmingham and Manchester). To prevent manipulation of the fares system TOCs are not allowed to advertise split tickets, but under the national Ticket Sales Agreement must be impartial and sell the most appropriate ticket for the journey requested – which in layman’s terms is a direct, through, ticket.Customers can save money through a number of options, for example booking in advance, by travelling across a slower route with more changes, or on some occasions, and if specific to the journey they are making, by splitting their ticket”.

So now at least I know why you can’t find the best value at the touch of a button. Yet again it’s a case of the Government setting the rules but the train operator getting the stick.

As Steve said earlier, the Rail Delivery Group is currently undertaking a consultation and they really would like your input! It seems everyone is frustrated by the situation and the consumer is currently the one who is suffering. Please do contribute to their survey http://britainrunsonrail.co.uk/fares More information is also available on their site.

I will end this article with a few thoughts for you. Who would ever take a taxi ride where the meter constantly changed its mile rate? Why can’t the London Zonal system be applied across the rail network? and would you be happy to know you had just paid twice the price of the person sat beside you on your journey?

A huge thanks to Steve and his Bus and Train site for his contribution and many hours of conversation on this subject. Why not get in touch and set him a similar challenge via his twitter page?

We would love to hear of your own experiences and whether this article has been of interest to you. Please do leave your comments in the section provided along with thoughts for future feature articles.