diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 24, 2018

Exactly ten years ago I wrote a post about rail fares. I researched the cheapest fares to ten stations approximately 50 miles from London, and ten stations approximately 100 miles from London. Ten years later, I thought I'd check out the same fares again.

I started by finding the cost of an off-peak return ticket from London, travelling on a Saturday, turn up and go.

Cost of an off-peak return rail ticket from London
50 MILES 2008  2018 Increase
Colchester£18.80£25.9038%
Cambridge£14.00£13.00-7%
Bedford£16.00£15.30-4%
Milton Keynes £14.50£15.003%
Oxford£19.00£26.6039%
Basingstoke£16.60£23.9044%
Arundel£20.60£30.6049%
Brighton£16.00£12.20-24%
Hastings£22.80£29.6030%
Ashford£19.60£27.0038%
average£18£2221%

n.b. I always picked the cheapest operator, for example travelling to Milton Keynes via the slow train rather than Virgin.

Ten years ago the average off-peak fare to a station 50 miles from London was £18. All the fares I looked up were within £5 of that amount. This year the average is £22, and the range is much wider than it was before.

Ten years ago the cheap destinations were Cambridge, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Brighton, and they still are. Each of these routes has some level of competition, rather than a single operator. Hastings and Arundel were the most expensive destinations, and they still are too.

The largest fare increases are to the southwest, to Basingstoke and Arundel, where off-peak fares now cost almost 50% more. Increases to Colchester, Oxford and Ashford are nudging 40%. But Saturday fares to Cambridge, Brighton and Bedford have actually fallen, thanks to some exceptionally good super-off-peak deals on Greater Anglia and Thameslink.

Cost of an off-peak return rail ticket from London
100 MILES 2008  2018 Increase
Norwich£41.00£55.0034%
Grantham£28.30£44.0055%
Loughborough £47.10£64.0036%
Lichfield£39.70£39.50-
Birmingham£30.00£30.502%
Worcester£32.40£57.7078%
Gloucester£45.00£54.2020%
Bath£48.00£59.5024%
Bournemouth£36.80£46.9027%
average£39£5031%

Ten years ago the average off-peak fare to a station 100 miles from London was £39. That's almost exactly double the average for 50 miles. This year the average off-peak fare is £50. Again the range is much wider than it was before.

The most expensive destination has always been Loughborough, because East Midlands Trains fares are high. The cheapest fare used to be to Grantham, but East Coast fares have really shot up. The biggest price hike is to Worcester, a frightening 78%, which is the equivalent of an annual 6% increase.

Fares to Birmingham are now the cheapest, so long as you travel via Chiltern. Fares to Lichfield have actually fallen by 20p, thanks to some competitive undercutting by new franchisee London Northwestern Railway. But overall it's not good news, as long distance weekend rail travel is becoming ever more expensive.

Cost of an off-peak return rail ticket from London
100 MILES 2008  2018 Increase
Calais£130£16527%

Calais is also about 100 miles from London, but deserves a separate table because its fares aren't terribly representative. Ten years ago I managed to find weekend seats to France for £130, this year I could only manage £165. Read nothing into that 27% increase.

But what if you're not travelling at the weekend? What if you have to travel at breakfast time? Which is why ten years ago I also researched weekday 'Anytime' fares.

Cost of an Anytime return rail ticket from London
100 MILES 2008  2018 Increase
Norwich£78£11041%
Grantham£95£13643%
Loughborough £108£17461%
Lichfield£126£104-17%
Birmingham£123£113-8%
Worcester£57£8447%
Gloucester£125£17238%
Bath£133£19748%
Bournemouth£41£6046%
average£98£12733%

Ten years ago rocking up at breakfast time for a 100 mile rail trip would have set you back around £100. Ten years later it's more like £130. No wonder people don't rock up early very often.

With a few exceptions, Anytime fares have risen by approximately 45%. That's generally higher than the equivalent off-peak increase. A return ticket to Loughborough, however, has shot up by a lot more. The biggest outliers, which have actually become cheaper over the last ten years, are both in the West Midlands - again courtesy of Chiltern and LNR.

Anytime fares to Gloucester, Bath and Loughborough are extortionate, which may be because GWR and EMT have no competition. The contrast between Gloucester (£172) and Worcester (£84), 20 miles apart up the Severn Valley, is extraordinary. Meanwhile Bournemouth is particularly noteworthy for having an Anytime fare much lower than all the others.

If you'd like to see an interactive map showing off-peak rail fares from London, hurrah, City Metric just published one. Fascinating stuff.

More realistically for weekday travel, what about booking ahead? As I did ten years ago, I've searched for the cheapest Advance fare currently available for travel on the first Monday in December, departing around 8am and returning around 6pm.

Cost of a return rail journey from London (2018)
100 MILESAdvance
 (pre-book) 
Anytime
 (turn-up & go) 
Difference
Norwich£36£110£74
Grantham£46£136£90
Loughborough £73£174£101
Lichfield£16£104£88
Birmingham£13£113£100
Worcester£56£84£28
Gloucester£67£172£105
Bath£133£197£64
Bournemouth£60£60£0
average£56£128£72

The best advance fare you can get is often pot luck, based on timing and availability. But I discovered an astonishing range of advance fares here, in general around £70 cheaper than turning up and buying a last minute ticket.

The cheapest pre-booked journeys are to the West Midlands, it being possible to make a return trip to Birmingham or Lichfield for astonishingly little. I had to double check Birmingham because £13 is so low, but London Northwestern and Chiltern really do offer bargain basement seats even a week in advance.

Norwich and Grantham have quite reasonable fares if you can book ahead. Pre-booking to Bournemouth saves nothing. Loughborough and Gloucester are still expensive destinations, despite having the largest pre-booked savings. Meanwhile the most extortionate 100-mile destination is Bath on GWR. I couldn't get the fare under £100, putting a day trip pretty much out of reach.

And finally, for suburban commuters, what about travelling into London in the morning and back out in the evening?

Cost of an Anytime return rail ticket to London
50 MILES 2008  2018 Increase
Colchester£38£5441%
Cambridge£30£4240%
Bedford£33£4228%
Milton Keynes£32£4127%
Oxford£43£6550%
Basingstoke£32£4231%
Arundel£40£5846%
Brighton£38£5238%
Hastings£43£6347%
Ashford£37£5854%
average£37£5240%

Here, at last, are some relatively coherent fares. Commuting 50 miles into London used to cost £30-45 a day ten years ago, and now costs £40-£60. Oxford and Hastings are at the expensive end of the range, and Cambridge, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Basingstoke at the other, but overall the range of fares is tighter than we've seen earlier.

But fare increases over 10 years are on the high side, ranging around 30-50% and averaging out at 40%. With regulated fares rising annually above the rate of inflation, London commuters are being forced to pay relatively more. But it still seems that peak travel into London is priced more uniformly than travel out, suggesting that this is a better way to study basic underlying patterns.

In conclusion:
» Fares have gone up by about a third over the last 10 years, but not consistently.
» On average fares are rising by 2-4% a year, ahead of the rate of inflation.
» Thameslink, London Northwestern and Chiltern have some of the lowest fare increases.
» EMT and GWR, who have no competition, have relatively expensive fares.
» Rail travel in the UK is not priced by distance, it's much more nuanced than that.


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