The State of Britain’s Railways

Two big stories as regards the UK’s railway’s caught my attention this week. Firstly, HS2 which has finally been given the go ahead (more on that later), and secondly, an article by the Beeb in which they attempted to identify the UK’s most expensive railway journey. The result of this brief (and admittedly not entirely scientific study) are staggering, Britain has some of the world’s most expensive railways!

While it should come as no surprise to learn that the Heathrow express tops the billing at a whopping £1.17 per mile, the price of 80p per mile on the London to Manchester line, is incredibly high. Even the 40p off peak and 14p season tickets on this route are pretty expensive. London to Kettering or Swindon/London lines are also in the +70p anytime range, with an average of 20-30p per mile across the entire country. This is about 3 to 10 times more than what our cousins in the rest of the EU pay for rail travel. Indeed, I just hopped onto the Amtrak website in America and its about 62p per mile (UK) for the gourmet expensive Acela Express NY to DC (anytime) to about 4.5p (yes really!) for a cheap advanced ticket on the Chicago to California Zephyr. The Americans often joke that they have a railway service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The UK has a railway system that the Americans would be ashamed of!

Consider for sake of comparison that the typical cost of motoring is about 7-10p per mile. While this motoring cost only accounts for fuel, with insurance, tax and depreciation costs of the car adding yet further. But its doubtful that the cost of motoring would be any more than, say 20p in the most cases, or about half the off-peak fare price on the Manchester-London route, a quarter the anytime price (which would be a fairer comparison since a car represents “anytime” travel) and 1/18th the cost of the Heathrow Express! And if you’re starting to think rail travel is a tad pricy spare a thought for Londoners. The standard fare on the underground now works out at the equivalent of £5-10 per mile! That’s about 25-50 times pricier than driving! It is thus no surprise to learn that the average commuter in England can spend the best part of several thousand pounds, for a spot to stand for an hour pressed up against someone’s sweaty armpits twice a day. The comments page on the above beeb article clearly indicates much anger among British commuters about this sorry state of affairs.

Now the rail industry would counter the above by pointing to their “advance” fares. My reply is, yes if you’re incredibility lucky enough to get an advance fare they are pretty cheap, but they are rare as hens teeth. I’ll do the odd long journeys across the UK and will often specifically look out for such tickets. I have regularly searched the booking system trying to get advance tickets (searching as far in advance as the website allows) and 9 times out of 10 have failed to get anything better than the standard off peak fare.

And at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the rail companies seem to go out of their way to make booking cheap fares as hard as possible. For example, probably the best bargain you’ll get on the railways, is the Sail/Rail ticket. For an incredibly cheap £30 single, you can get a train and a ferry ticket from the Midlands all the way to Dublin (Ferry and rail combined). I think its about £38 from central London, with similar deals to France to be had for similar bargain basement prices.

However, you try booking one of these tickets through the railway company websites! It will usually refuse to allow you to book a seat on the most convenient trains. This can be bypassed by ringing up the Ferry company, who are usually more than happy enough to book you on the specific trains you want (i.e. the boat train that waits for the boat and coincides with its departure). However, this is not always an option, if for example, as I was over Christmas, coming from Ireland to Britain, but booking the ticket in Britain, you have to go through the rail company. Ring up, and you get put through to an Indian call centre, where they will struggle to understand you’re accent, and to be perfectly blunt, the staff at Indian call centres I find simply do not understand how the British rail system works – which is hardly a surprise nor the staff’s fault, as the Indian train booking system is completely different to the UK one (see here for more info on the Indian train booking system). Try booking a bike on a British train through a Indian call centre and see what happens (when I moved from Scotland to England my bike ended up chained to a lamppost outside Patrick station for a week as “the Trainline” call centre screwed up my booking, I had to eventually transport it south by car!).

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