diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time for the annual announcement regarding rail fare rises. Not in Boris's London fiefdom, but increases expected across the national rail network. Trying to get from Exeter to Edinburgh, or commute daily from Liverpool to Manchester? These price hikes will affect you.

Six or seven per cent, on average, that's the level of fare increase to be expected in the New Year. That's deliberately above inflation, because the Government allows rail companies to raise prices by more than inflation to pay for infrastructure improvements. It makes sense, they say, to fund track repairs and extra carriages through ticket prices and not the tax payer. As more people travel by train, overcrowding increases and even greater investment is required, which can be paid for out of increased ticket sales. Or something. The whole argument sounds slightly dodgy to me, not least because it has one unavoidable consequence. Travelling long distances by train in Britain is bloody expensive.

Wouldn't it be nice to pop up to Liverpool from London this weekend to enjoy a bit of Culture? That'll be £62.60, please. I think not. And for this princely fee you'd also get to sit on a rail replacement bus between Northampton and Birmingham, making the total length of the journey about five and a half hours. It'd be quicker, and cheaper, to drive. Our rail tickets help to pay for necessary extra engineering works, but these extra engineering works make rail journeys pretty much unbearable. Sorry Liverpool, I don't have either the time or the money to waste, so I won't be visiting.

And yes, I know booking in advance saves money. If I knew I was planning to visit Liverpool in four weeks time, and if I knew precisely which trains I intended to travel on, I could get there for £42 (in just over two hours). But my life's not planned that carefully that far ahead, neither would I want it to be. I want to turn up at the station, buy a ticket and go. And so I'm screwed.

What about rail journeys around London and the South East, how crippling are fares here? Depends where you go, it seems. I travel up to Norwich quite often, a return journey which now costs as much as £41, and which'll be more like £43.50 next year. That's quite a hike from even five years ago, when a similar ticket would have cost me just £30. But if I wanted to go to Worcester it'd only cost £32.40 (or, in fact, £21.60 thanks to my annual travelcard which allows me one-third off all rail fares in the "Network Card" area). Some rail journeys are better value than others, because some evil rail companies have been raising prices faster than others.

So I thought I'd do a value for money destination check. I've selected several towns that are approximately 50 miles from London, and several that are approximately 100 miles from London. Then I've found the cost of an off-peak return ticket, travelling today, turn up and go. And then I've ranked the towns in order of cheap-to-visit-ness. Where's good to go from London, and where (in these credit crunch times) is best avoided?

Cost of an off-peak rail ticket from London
 50 miles from London100 miles from London
  1)Cambridge £14*Grantham £28.30
  2)Milton Keynes £14.50*Birmingham £30*
  3)Bedford £16Worcester £32.40
  4)Brighton £16Bournemouth £36.80
  5)Basingstoke £16.60Lichfield £39.70
  6)Colchester £18.80Norwich £41
  7)Oxford £19Gloucester £45
  8)Ashford £19.60Loughborough £47.10
  9)Arundel £20.60Bath £48
10)Hastings £22.80Calais £130
* via slow train

I'm disturbed to see how different these prices are for travelling the same distance. Why go to Hastings when you could go to Brighton for one-third less? How can it be £12 dearer to travel to Gloucester then Worcester? And Grantham and Loughborough may only be a few miles apart, but they're served by different rail companies so one's £20 more expensive to visit than the other. Ah, for the golden days of regular British Rail pricing. And it can only get more expensive, more irrationally, more fool us.

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