The crazy world of rail ticketing

Tuesday 15th February 2022

As a Brighton Main Line regular I’ve long been used to playing the ‘Thameslink only’ ticket game to save myself money on travels to and from London, not least during the current hiatus when my local station Hassocks is only blessed with trains to London Bridge and at that a Southern departure at 02 and 32 past each hour followed close behind by a Thameslink at 05 and 35 following each other to London Bridge. Such is the apparent complexity of train pathing and supposed Covid impacted staff challenges.

Still, only a few days to go before we get no trains at all for nine days and then it’s said Victoria (normally Britain’s second busiest station) will once again be deemed worthy of serving by Southern Rail by Brighton Main Line trains (its busiest line).

For fare deals on longer distance journeys I dutifully keep a close eye on cheaper advance purchase tickets offered online by GWR, Chiltern, Avanti West Coast, EMR, LNER and Greater Anglia and have become adept at comparing what may appear bargain fares (because they’re shown as single leg prices) with flexible off peak return tickets. In recent times I’ve found the latter usually offer the best value, especially with the flexibility they offer.

And then there’s the delight of exploring the options for split ticketing of course.

It’s a routine I’m now well used to.

However, my few days travels in the north last weekend proved to be quite a revelation at just how crazy the system for pricing rail journeys has become elsewhere in the country. Where “Advanced” tickets now means simply buying a ticket immediately before travelling – something I thought was what you had to do anyway. And even more bizarre, realising ticket vending machines at stations now sell different tickets to ticket offices and vice versa, and you have to interrogate both to ensure you get the best deal.

I made a journey on Friday afternoon from Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed. I asked for a single with my Senior Railcard in the LNER ticket office. I’d already researched the off-peak single was £18.20 on any operator, £12.30 on Cross Country and £11.05 on TransPennine Express. As the time was around 16:45 I was expecting to pay £12.30 on the next departure at 17:07 operated by Cross Country.

Taken from www.brfares.com

“When are you going?” I was asked. “Now” I replied. And after some interrogation on her laptop style screen she said the next departure was at 17:07 and if I wanted that journey it would cost £10.25.

So unexpectedly that saved me a further £2.05 (£12.30-£10.25) on what I’d expected on top of the £5.90 (£18.20-£12.30) saving if I’d waited for the LNER departure at 17:30. And even more of a bonus it beat the £11.05 fare I’d have paid if I’d waited another four minutes after the LNER departure for the 17:34 which is operated by TransPennine Express.

That made me feel good.

Until I wandered over to the bank of ticket machines and just out of curiosity popped in my journey – the machines asks you to specify when you’re travelling so I hit the button marked “NOW”. Back came the options of a full price £18.20 on the Cross Country 17:07 departure (which is incorrect, as it should be £12.30 as explained above) and no mention of the £10.25 I’d just been sold but a bargain priced £6.40 on the LNER operated 17:30 – ie almost a third of what I’d have paid if I’d opted for that at the ticket office as the woman serving me didn’t mention that fare being available.

Interestingly the machine also shows a cheaper price for the LNER operated 18:30 departure but not for the 18:08 Cross Country one.

I can only conclude the ticket machines in Edinburgh station overseen by LNER show a bias to tickets for LNER operated trains, which doesn’t strike me as either fair or helpful.

Next morning, Saturday, I travelled from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Newcastle. The woman in the ticket office again asked if I was travelling “now” and offered me a £7.25 single on the 07:08 LNER departure.

This represents a saving of £12.90 on the off peak single of £20.15 and cheaper than the next Cross Country departure at £17.60. Had TransPennine Express been running it would have cost £16.50 although who knows if there would have been a cheaper ticket but engineering works south of Newcastle meant no TPE trains on Saturday.

Taken from www.brfares.com

The best bit came on Sunday lunch time when I wanted to travel from Newcastle over to Carlisle.

LNER have sited a large number of ticket machines in the entrance of Newcastle’s station so I interrogated one to see what ticket I could buy with a Senior Railcard for a single journey. And much to my delight it came up with a £1.95 “Advanced Single” ticket for not only my planned departure at 12:55 but later departures too.

This represented a £9.90 saving on the standard Anytime Day Single (there’s no Off Peak) of £11.95 which was also offered.

Except when I pressed the £1.95 icon it came back with the message “Reservation for outbound not available. Mandatory reservation required, Please select another service”.

What a disappointment. I tried all the other departures but they all came up with the same message.

I decided to head over to the Ticket Office to see what they would offer me.

In LNER’s wisdom the ticket office in Newcastle has been relocated to the furthest corner possible from the front entrance to the station – that’s passed W H Smith, passed M&S Simply Food, passed Sainsbury’s Local, passed Crafts Beers, Local Ales, Local Spirits, passed the ladies and disabled toilets, and passed Pasta Station.

‘Well, we don’t want to make it convenient to use a ticket office at a railway station do we?’ I can imagine the dunce head who came up with this scheme telling the meeting to discuss the plans to encourage more retail. Any retail except actually selling the very thing the stations exists for – ie train tickets.

In the new layout, only the Gents toilets are a further walk away for passengers.

So remember, when LNER tell you “we’re driven by customer service” – it’s more a Prime Ministerial type claim than anything lodged in reality..

I made it to the ticket office and the helpful woman behind the glass sold me a ticket, an “Advance Single” for £7.25 – something that wasn’t offered at the ticket machine, confirming my view, and the moral of this story, that if you want to be confident of getting the best ticket deal on Britain’s railway you need to interrogate both the ticket machine and the ticket office to be sure you are getting the cheapest fare, as both offer different ticket prices. And that’s before looking online and maybe being offered more options, including ones where you pay an additional commission to the likes of Trainline.

What a crazy situation. If you look on the helpful brfares.com website there’s a full list of all the different “Advance Single” fares available between Newcastle and Carlisle on Northern’s trains.

Why. So. Many?

It’s just totally bonkers.

My £7.25 is at the top of the list and that £1.95 at the bottom.

All the more so as these so called “Advance Single” tickets – which are nothing of the kind, as you can buy them immediately before departure – were once a rouse by train companies to steal all the revenue for themselves rather than share it with other operators in line with “Any Permitted” tickets under ORCATS which stands for “Operational Research Computerised Allocation of Tickets to Services” and shares the spoils accordingly.

Except, since March 2020 train companies haven’t been interested in revenue, since it all passes over to the Treasury who are continuing to bail out the rail industry and take all the revenue risk.

The whole thing is a complete nonsense.

But that’s rail ticketing for you.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Thursday 17th February 2022: A wander with a Waterside Wanderer.

33 thoughts on “The crazy world of rail ticketing

Add yours

  1. Since the pandemic, buying train tickets has become nothing more than a complete faff. The machines at Chester are dismal and won’t offer correct tickets for basic journeys. Chester – Stockport it would only sell the Northern fare, wouldn’t permit the fare via Crewe (which on a Sunday, you have an hourly service changing at Crewe or a two hourly direct. The direct didn’t suit my journey time and so I had to change at Crewe) so I had to go to the ticket office.

    Chester – Llandudno Junction, it didn’t like to sell a normal ticket, only ‘Avanti Only’.

    It’s now only gotten worse with TFWs ‘Group Save’ fare. If you ever get a choice, this comes up at the top because it is cheapest. It’s only valid if more than 3 people travel together though. Rather than automatically apply the discount when the right amount of passengers is added, it gives it as an option that everyone wrongly clicks.

    TVMs do not need to be as complicated as they are. They have been made complex by various stupid companies claiming to know what passengers want more than even the passengers know and all it does it complicate things, slow down the ticket buying process and make the railways a worse place to be. Then again, that seems to be how we are going over the past 2 years. Pull out all the stops (in some cases literally) and make it as poor experience as possible to use the railways. Such a shame.

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  2. As you say – completely crazy! this ought to be to top of the ‘action’ heap for Great British Railways.

    If you are doing more blogs about tickets – as I know you are keen on proper integration, might you do something about through tickets involving bus journeys? (maybe including PlusBus). This ought to be more common than it is: the bus companies surely appreciate the driver time saved by pre-paid tickets?

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  3. Am i alone in wondering if rail ticket pricing has now become so vague, the ticket office staff should just look at a customer/passenger/gambler and think ‘I wonder what this person would be prepared to pay?’ and just make one up? Any wonder people drive? This all makes bus fares seem very straight forward. Imagine your local filling station having a huge display outside with around a dozen prices for your fuel per litre depending on time of day, and other such silly things. I know it is all selective pricing and suchlike, but keep it simple stupid. Pence per mile with a variation for weekends and school holidays perhaps? I’m delighted that a multi-mode ticket we have been working on has come into being. If you want people to come back to rail and public transport, take a look at how supermarkets and other customer focussed businesses do it. How about a rail travel loyalty card? How about asking passengers what they want? I can dream. Go compare as the large man says.

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  4. With regard to the ticket office at Newcastle some 2-3 years ago I asked a member of staff if there was a ticket office. As Roger says it is furthest away from where you enter the station.

    Concerning tickets all this train specific nonsense should stop and passengers just buy a ticket from A – B irrespective of the colour of the train. One thing which does concern me (and the Southern radio messages about their key card is a good example) is that with the encouragement to use smart cards and contactless the break of journey advantage is I believe being lost. I haven’t checked the actual fares but supposing someone has an off peak return East Croydon – Brighton, with a paper ticket then on the return they might decide to stop off at Burgess Hill and visit a pub, which does not require a separate ticket. I imagine with key card etc once you leave the station you would start a new ticket journey which could well cost more overall. As far as I am aware this would not be regarded as one journey – Brighton to East Croydon, but two separate journeys.

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    1. 654, I think with the example you give, Southern’s Key Card system is smart enough to allow break of journey whether you’ve added a ticket to the card or using Key-Go, which charges your payment card afterwards. I’ve done this, for example, London to Eastbourne, and broken the journey at Lewes and only been charged the usual London to Eastbourne fare.

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  5. Great British Railways should largely put a stop yo this. Detail at present though is scant

    The plain seems to be to run the rail network as a single integrated network. It is unclear as to whether Wales and Scotland and TfL are included in this

    All trains say will be branded Great British Railways although they may have a sub brand. Even in British Rail it was run as regions. So we could have Great Brit Rail Greater Anglia fares and tickets though would be set buy Great British Rail and I believe all fares revenues would go to Great British Rail

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  6. Yes, what a mess (rail tickets). It seems to be a British thing to make everything as complicated as possible.

    You only have to look abroad to find sensible modern systems with smartcards and simple fare structures…where there’s just one fare from A to B, that’s all!

    Here I have to decide: what time am I travelling, what time do I want to return, what train company do I prefer, what day do I want to return, can I use my Southern Key Card with Key Go on this journey, can I use my railcard on this journey, which London terminal do I want to go to, etc.

    There’s advance purchase, anytime singles, anytime returns, anytime day singles, anytime day returns, first class, standard class, off-peak day travelcard, off-peak day single, off-peak day return, super off-peak day travelcard, super off-peak day return, paper tickets, smartcard tickets, railcard discounts, but not for all fares, weekly seasons, monthly seasons, annual seasons…I could go on!

    In BR days things were simpler. Every few years ago there’s new lower fare categories introduced. I wondered why this is. I think it’s because every year fares are increased by more than inflation so to attract more casual leisure travellers who balk at the standard fares. But this could be counter-productive if too many passengers take advantage. Also they don’t want to introduce sensible fares for all as they don’t want to loose all that revenue from the traditional season ticket commuter, a dying breed of cash cow.

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    1. Some years ago there was great publicity for simplifying rail fares – with just three types – was it anytime, off peak and advance. The trouble was and is that each was subdivided into hundreds of permutations as Peter explains. Does the motorist get too worried if he can only find an Esso petrol station when he would rather have Shell? Does he (with possible minor exceptions) pay the same if he uses a motorway or the A road? Yet the rail passenger is almost being asked whether he would like a man or lady train driver!!

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  7. As a regular traveller on the ECML between Edinburgh and Newcastle I am always looking for the best ticket deals. I notice that LNER are now offering Lumo tickets online, something they weren’t at the start.
    I also check first class fares as often they are only a couple of pounds more than standard and worth the money for extra comfort and at seat food and drinks.
    If travelling to Newcastle I usually opt for the Plus Bus add on as the Railcard discounted cost of this is only a few pence more than my normal single bus fare but has greater geographic coverage than a day rider ticket.

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  8. A great report, Roger!

    Whilst the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has made several attempts over the years to simplify/standardise tickets, their efforts are undermined by the fact that Train Operating Companies (TOCs) have the freedom to introduce additional TOC-specific ticket types and offers which are valid only on their own services, This is why there is such a plethora of different ticket types on routes which have more than one operator.

    Previously a ticket branded ‘Advance’ had to be purchased, at the latest, by 23.59 the day before travel. Some individual TOCs, however, have relaxed this requirement – with the result (as you describe) that Advance tickets can sometimes be bought up to departure. With regard to the nonsensical number of possible fares between Newcastle and Carlisle, your screenshot indicates that Northern has no less than ten different price points for Advance fares on this journey (whereas a maximum of two or three would probably suffice for a journey of that length). I suspect that their fares system then demands that each of these ten price points has to have its own unique fare.

    Self service machines do not always give the cheapest fare – for the simple reason that they cannot ask the customer questions. Greater Anglia, for example, offers a ticket at weekends (although only on some of its network) called the Duo. As the name suggests, it is for two people travelling together, and is based on their Super Off-peak Day Return. It offers a discount of 50% off the second ticket (or 25% off each ticket, however you choose to look at it). Crucially, it undercuts the price of two single fares, so someone asking at the ticket office for two singles would normally be sold the Duo as a cheaper alternative. There would, of course, be no such help given by a self service machine, so the two passengers each requiring a single ticket could easily be paying an extra ten or fifteen pounds between them.

    Ticket offices should therefore be centrally located for those who choose to use them; not shoved out to the extremity of the station in favour of other retail units. Sadly, it all appears to be part of the relentless drive to make rail travel more like air travel – with paperless ticketing and all tickets purchased in advance and online.

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  9. Rail fares should be mileage based, one fare valid on all trains, returns should all be open. No advance cheap fares just walk on fares. Demand peaks should be managed by adding carriages.

    Multiple unit trains tend to be operated as fixed formations as train operators lease the minimum number of units. I would replace multiple units with variable length loco hailed push pull trains, maximum six cars.

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  10. Ah the complex world of advanced ticketing, even when it’s not advanced!, introduced by Sir Richard Branson and the railways are stuck with it today but not seemingly Tricky Dickie anymore although we don’t know who owns all the software and computers needed to generate all this complex advance ticketing?As for Trans Pennine Edinburgh to Berwick I don’t think that many of theirs go down that side only a few a day but at least it’s not likely to be a 2 and a 1/4 car 185 now as finally TPE have some proper trains!Then there is Lumo too assuming that they stop at Berwick but Cross Country and LNER are the main ones.You could do Scot Rail, Northern and Tyne and Wear Metro too missing the middle bit.Scot Rail to Dunbar, another operator to Morpeth, Northern to Manors and finally Tyne and Wear Metro to Newcastle Central!

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  11. I was told by staff at a ticket office (before the pandemic existed) that they HAD to offer the cheapest ticket for the service required.

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  12. I think this report has highlighted just how out of control the railway fare system has actually become, and the solution will not actually suit Anyone. I doubt if few in power even realise it, least of all the current Transport Minister. But, lest we forget, the explosion in rail travel came after privatisation, merely because of the new-found freedoms to offer cheap “deals”, aimed solely at the leisure/student market. So, if we return (sensibly) to fixed prices as in BR days, it will upset those who gain and risk losing their custom and the ability to fill otherwise empty seats. We are therefore stuck with the current nightmare. The only possible solution which I certainly would not want to tackle, is to at least equate the cheaper fares on offer where two or more Operators are running. In itself an almost impossible task pre-Covid, but which could now be tackled as HM Treasury control the purse strings.

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  13. I dont think you can have a standard fare for all journys as the railways have a capacity problem so to try to prevent overcrowding demand is managed by price

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  14. The move of Newcastle’s ticket office/travel centre from a prime to a remote location (and York, similarly) is a terrible indictment of the way some railway stations seem to be shopping centres and food courts with train services attached, rather than the operators concentrating on their own passengers priorities at the station. First of all you get your ticket and find out which platform the trains leaves from, then do the secondary business of buying food, drink and whatever else you forgot to bring with you or need to top up! I wouldn’t be surprised if, like trolleybus654’s query, “where is the ticket office?” isn’t one of the most-asked questions at the information desk.

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  15. It would be interesting to know at what moment the cautionary “This seat may be reserved en route” message above seat 46 in coach A on the 0624 train from Edinburgh changed to “Seat Reserved between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle”, and whether anyone had taken the risk of sitting in it until then!

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  16. Perhaps it would be better to go back to complusary seat reservastions for long distance trains/ In addition they could sell a reasonably number of tickets at a discount on the basis they will probably not get a seat(Probably because you always get some no shows)

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    1. Bob, please lets not go down that road. I for one don’t want ti be tied to particular trains. If my bus runs late and I miss the intended train then that becomes very costly. Not only that, but I prefer to choose what sort of people I sit amongst, I don’t want to be close to, let alone sitting next to some lout with headphones blaring out, chewing nasty smelling gum and with feet all over the seat opposite.

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  17. Germans can avail themselves of the Bahn100 card which, for €4027 (about £3350) buys 12 months unlimited travel on the German rail network plus local buses and trams in most large towns and cities. If only we had something similar in the UK – that would be a incentive to forego the car. We can but dream….

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  18. Of course what happens if you turn up after the ticket office shuts (some shut very early) or your station has no ticket office, are you then barred from being able to use the cheaper tickets that the ticket office could sell you ? – I doubt very much if the on train staff would be able to sell the full range, let alone understand.

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  19. Compulsory seat reservations are anathema for business travellers. Often we do not know what time we will get away from meetings, seminars etc which leads to picking the last possible train that you could catch.
    I realise that the railway is moving towards being a leisure service for long distance travellers and who knows whether business travel will approach anything like previous levels.
    Anyway you have to pity the ticket office staff who are meant to know all these ticket options.

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    1. Compulsory seat reservations – no no no!! Does the motorist (who after all is in competition and seems to be increasing in numbers post pandemic) have to book a slot on the M1. No of course not. It must always largely remain a turn up and go railway enabling passengers to take the train of their choice and sit where they want.

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  20. This contrast between ticket machine fares and ticket office fares is quite alarming to the occasional traveller – and may even be news to regulars unaware that their favourite purchasing channel may not be so trustworthy after all.

    Other ways to buy tickets are online and from train conductors. Which fares pattern is available from these sources – if anyone knows, that is?

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  21. The confusion of fares goes back to BR days. In the late 70s I was working in a BR travel office when a customer asked for a weekend return to Twywn (before advance tickets) I sold him a weekend return from Euston to Shrewsbury, an onward single to Machynlleth and advised him to buy a Cambrian Coast evening ranger on the train and a Cambrian Sunday ranger for the rest of his travel thus saving him some 30% on his travel. These fares weren’t on the pre APTIS ticket machine. One had to know what was available.
    Regarding reservations, labels have to be printed and fixed or on train displays programmed so, regrettably, the cut off period has to be far longer than q15 minutes.

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  22. ISTM that one of the problems when one buys a ticket online is that, for longer-distance serevices, it always seems to include a seat reservation – even for tickets which are in fact flexible. “Customers” who know this may well then travel on a different train (leaving a seat on their “chosen” one potentially vacant); those who don’t know this may rush to catch theur train or buy a more expensive ticket than they need to. In any case, my experience of longer-distance trains (at least out of London in the peak) is that people just sit where they want, anyway!

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  23. I have to admit I kind of like the mess of fares as for a savvy traveller like myself, I can often get journeys for much cheaper than they would be if it was done on mileage by split ticketing

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  24. 42 year old underground District line train to return to passenger service in West London

    ‘D Stock’ trains which ran on the London Underground District line made their final journeys in April 2017, London thought it had seen the last of them. Now, one of the 75 trainsets is making a surprising return to the capital thanks to an overhaul which means it is able to run using a giant battery. This technology will allow it to run a zero local emission, environmentally friendly service on the few non-electrified passenger lines in London, which currently rely on diesel to power passenger trains.

    GWR, which runs train services across West London, has teamed up with Network Rail and engineering firm Vivarail to start a trial using the overhauled ex-Tube train on the branch line between West Ealing and Greenford which is not electrified. A special charging facility will be installed at West Ealing station to allow the train to power up and then it will run using its battery only to Greenford and back.

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  25. What you’ve actually encountered here is an error with the TVM. I can’t speak to LNER’s fare structure, but with the Northern journey from Newcastle to Carlisle what you should be offered on the day is the DG9 category for £7.25, which you were correctly sold by the ticket office. The TVM is mistakenly showing the DG0 category of £1.95 available when it isn’t (not doing a proper check for availability). That’s why it is unable to actually book it. This is a fault that has been seen on Northern TVM’s which are the same software, and where it has been spotted it has been rectified. Somebody in LNER needs to report this as a fault.

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