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The task and travail of buying train tickets
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2006
Train passengers may not like it, but reluctantly they're getting used to the idea of booking in advance for the best value tickets. What they probably don't realise, however, is that on-line and telephone pre-booking services like Thetrainline frequently fail to identify the cheapest ticket options.
An Observer survey has found numerous examples of train journeys where Thetrainline fails to flag up the most economical ticketing options. The most dramatic saving we discovered was for a family of four from York planning to spend May half-term week in Devon (see panel below). In this example, Thetrainline's proffered ‘saver' ticket would have cost the family over £350. By travelling via London rather than changing in Birmingham , however – not an option offered – the cost could have been brought down to around £220.
Or take the case of someone wanting to make a Monday morning business trip in May from Durham to Stafford , returning back the same evening. For a train leaving Durham around 7.30am, Thetrainline's initial offer was a £71.70 saver return, travelling via Birmingham . Extra clicks on Thetrainline's website were necessary to discover that this could be reduced to £70.20 for a saver ticket valid via Manchester . Yet what Thetrainline completely failed to point out was that exactly the same trains could be used with a different ticket combination: buy a ticket covering the Durham-Manchester leg (£45.50 saver return) and one from Manchester-Stafford (£15.20 supersaver return), and the total journey cost came down by more than ten pounds.
Cases like this – and we found several similar examples - come as no surprise to Michael Blakemore, emeritus professor of geography at Durham University , who has been researching train ticketing policies for several years. The problem, he says, is that train companies are increasingly adopting the sort of pricing techniques pioneered by low-cost airlines. These may work well for single point-to-point flights but become very problematic when introduced into a rail network made up of different operators, each with their approach to pricing. “The cost of buying access to an integrated journey is high,” he says. By contrast, if you know the rail system well and break your journey down into the right component parts you stand to benefit, he maintains.
Thetrainline, 80% owned by the Virgin Group, took over its rival advance ticketing service Qjump in 2004 and now dominates the market. It also picks up many customers who use the independent National Rail Enquiry website for timetable enquiries, and it effectively also runs many of the websites run by the train operators themselves.
Thetrainline is already vulnerable to criticism for its policy of automatically adding a £1 per person insurance charge to ticket sales, which customers have to positively choose not to buy. The company, which says that one in three customers pay for insurance, argues that there are a number of opportunities during the purchase procedure to opt out.
But it is the problems with the information it provides which are potentially more costly for customers. For return journeys, Thetrainline initially only provides data on return fares, even though since last year the best savings can be had by purchasing two discounted single tickets. Whilst information on single fares can be found, this is only after a further mouse click. Michael Blakemore points out that many people may not realise they need to check these fares. “The majority of people are still conditioned to think that return fares are better than singles,” he says.
Thetrainline also claims to offer users, at a further click of a mouse, information on possible cheaper tickets on ‘alternative, slower routes'. But this promise failed to reveal the lower-cost fare and routing options we discovered.
One problem for Thetrainline and other similar services is that hiding in the background lies the central fares database run jointly by the train operators through the Association of Train Operating Companies. Whilst this database is supposed to identify all the fares and routing possibilities currently on offer throughout the network, an ATOC spokesperson admitted that it is known to contain anomalies. ATOC argues, however, that the numbers of these anomalies are small.
For Michael Blakemore, this is all a product of a rail system which is penalising travellers who simply want to turn up, buy a ticket and catch a train. People are being rewarded for travelling at times convenient to the rail companies, or for doing the sometimes lengthy homework necessary to find the best ticketing deals. “Is this what the government means by an integrated transport policy?” he asks.
We wanted to know the cost of tickets for a family of four (two adults, two children) living in York and planning to spend May half term week in Plymouth .
What we were offered:
York-Plymouth, changing in Birmingham . Sat May 27 th , returning Sat June 3 rd leaving around 8am. Thetrainline's cheapest deal was a Saver Return at £118.70. Total family cost £356.10.
What we discovered:
Then we asked Thetrainline to quote for tickets on the same days between York and London , and separately between London and Plymouth . A very different picture emerged:
York-London Sat May 27 th , returning Sat June 3 rd . GNER Standard Advance1 singles were available at £9.50 (no child reduction) – family cost £76.
London-Plymouth, Sat May 27 th , returning Sat June 3 rd . Super Advance Return ticket was offered at £46 - family cost £138.00.
Add on the London transfer cost of £9 and the total of travelling this way totalled £223. The downside was a slightly longer journey time and more inflexible ticketing – but shouldn't customers at least be offered this opportunity to save over £130? At the moment, they aren't.
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