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