There's been lots of fuss in the papers about the UK having higher rail fares than Europe.  So much so, I decided to do a test myself.

Long-distance inter-city or short-distance commuter?

First, I believe that any sensible discussion of fares must be clearly divided into long distance or short distance/commuter, as the issues are totally different.  It makes no more sense to discuss rail fares all in one go than to discuss 'bus fares' without saying whether you mean National Express Victoria coach station to Leeds, or the number 13 from Baker Street to Oxford Circus.  Commuter/short distance fares are largely subsidized, and broadly-speaking it's a political choice between higher taxation, higher subsidy, lower fares, and lower taxation, lower subsidy and higher fares, which we Brits have tended to make lower down the tax/subsidy range and higher up the fare price range than other countries, for better or for worse. But here, I'll look at long distance fares.

The test...  The results even surprised me...

I picked four fairly-similar routes:  London to Sheffield 265Km, Paris to Dijon 287Km, Rome to Florence 261Km, Nuremberg to Kassel 265Km.  Actually, I didn't pick the first three, a journalist who contacted me had already identified these as comparable, so I simply re-used them, no pre-selecting particularly-cheap UK routes or particularly-expensive Continental routes on my part.  The fourth route was simply the first inter-city German route of about 265Km I came across flicking through the German part of the Thomas Cook European Timetable.  So, nothing up my sleeve, no funny business in the choice of routes, I was doing this for my benefit as much as public consumption.  I then simply used www.nationalrail.co.uk for UK prices, www.tgv-europe.com for French prices, www.trenitalia.com for Italian prices and www.bahn.de for German prices.  All very simple to do.

1. Booking a month in advance...

OK, so first test.  We try booking a train at midday, exactly one month ahead.

 If pre-booked 1 month ahead, 12:00 train

 London to Sheffield

12.50 on the 12:03, 15 on 11:55, 19 on 12:55 & several later trains.

 Paris to Dijon    

27 (25) on the 08:53, 42 on the 15:38, 49 on the 15:58, and 36 on the 16:53.

 Rome to Florence

29 (25) on all departures around lunchtime

 Nuremburg to Kassel

35 (29) on all departures around lunchtime

So interestingly Britain seems to have the cheapest long distance fares in this test. True, had I picked an evening peak train around 17:00, the London-Sheffield price would have gone up to 50, down to 25 around 18:30, back to 12.50 around 20:00.  But you get the picture.  Update:  In case you think London-Sheffield is a special case, I tried London-Manchester. 12.50. I then tried London-Leeds, 22.50.  London-Cardiff 12 or 19.

2. If travelling tomorrow...

Ha, ha, ha, that was pre-booking way in advance, of course it was cheaper!  What if you wanted to go tomorrow, then we'd easily have the most expensive train fares in Europe, right?  I'm sorry to say I thought that might indeed be the case.  But the results surprised even me:

 If pre-booked for travel tomorrow, 12:00 train

 London to Sheffield

22 on the 11:55, 12:25; 41 on the 12:55.

 Paris to Dijon    

84 (70) on the 11:58 & 14:53 high-speed TGVs, but 42.80 on a slow TER train. 

 Rome to Florence

43 (36) on all departures

 Nuremburg to Kassel

73 (61) on all departures

In the UK, you can book advance fares up till 18:59 the day before travel, and in practice often up to 23:59 (even if they say 18:59!).  All the German cheapies disappear 3 days ahead, which is why the German route is now at the 73 full-price rate.  Economy & Super-economy fares also seem to have dried up between Rome & Florence.

3. If travelling today...

OK, OK, but that was still pre-booking an Advance ticket wasn't it?  What if you just turn up at the station and need to buy a ticket for the next train, then we're waaaaay pricier than Europe, right?  Indeed, I thought we probably would be, but it's easy enough to run the test and find out.  But guess what, another surprise!

 For travel today, bought at the station, immediate departure, outside the peaks...

 London to Sheffield

69.50 one-way or 70.50 return on all off-peak trains

 Paris to Dijon    

49 (41) the cheapest, available on some high-speed TGVs, still 42.80 on the slow TER train. 

 Rome to Florence

43 (36) on all departures

 Nuremburg to Kassel

73 (61) on all departures

For a purely one-way journey the UK is now more expensive.  But hold your horses!  For historic reasons an Off-Peak (formerly Saver) return is 1 more than a 1 way - this was inherited from BR at privatisation, and is now fossilised by Government fares regulation (it's a long story!).  So a round trip would be 70.50, equivalent to just 35.25 each way, whereas all the other countries you'd pay double what you see above.  So what d'ya know, if you're making a return journey the UK also seems cheapest for walk-up travel, assuming you avoid the Monday-Friday business peaks.  Now, where did you read that good news in the papers?!  East Midland Trains Off-peak Tickets are similar in price to West Coast's as I recall, although in fairness you might get a different answer using an East Coast route, as (again for historic reasons) East Coast has always had higher Saver/Off-Peak fares than other operators.  But you get the picture!

4. If travelling today in the business peak hours...

And now for completeness and an all-round perspective of UK rail fares (because I think the whole truth is important, not just soundbites), what if you just need to wander into the airport and buy a fully-flexible ticket for the next flight, as you naturally do?  Sorry, I mean wander into the station and buy a fully-flexible business ticket for the next train?  Yup, you guessed it, now the UK is indisputably the most expensive, although this is only for travel in the Monday-Friday business peaks.  I gather only 10-15% of travellers on a typical inter-city route buy these business-priced Anytime fares, so this is just 10-15% of the story.  Always ask what the other 85-90% is!  The Off-Peak fares referred to in test 3 above are likely to be bought by around 50%-55% of passengers on a typical long distance route, so are far more common.

 For travel today, bought at the station, immediate departure, business peak...

 London to Sheffield

104

 Paris to Dijon    

49 (41) the cheapest, available on some high-speed TGVs, still 42.80 on the slow TER train. 

 Rome to Florence

43 (36) on all departures

 Nuremburg to Kassel

73 (61) on all departures

Conclusion..

So the next time someone says (or you read) "Britain has the highest rail fares in Europe", you'll know this is only 15% of the story.  The other 85% is that we have similar or even cheaper fares, too.  The big picture is that Britain has the most commercially aggressive fares in Europe, with the highest fares designed to get maximum revenue from business travel, and some of the lowest fares designed to get more revenue by filling more seats.  This is exactly what airlines have known, and been doing, for decades. But don't take my word for it, see for yourself, check some UK train fares at www.nationalrail.co.uk...

 


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