08 May 2006

UK Train Folly

I took a train from Burton-upon-Trent to Ledbury on Saturday. As I wasn't sure upon my departure point, I had downloaded a number of departure times from Burton, Tamworth and Lichfield which were all close by. It was clear that Burton and Tamworth services were faster (many listed as direct without change). I checked the pricing from Tamworth and saw that it was possible to get an open single (walk-up price) for about £11.20, which I thought was just about acceptable. I did not check prices from Burton, which is 12 minutes earlier on the same line (about 8-10 miles or so). The direct service is run by Central Trains (though some changing services include other companies).

I got to the station with about 10 minutes to spare and asked for the price of the ticket to Ledbury. I was told it was £18.xx (can't remember pence exactly). I asked again requesting the very cheapest fare, and the same figure was quoted back. I said "surely this can't be as the fare from Tamworth is £11.xx?". All trains from Burton to Ledbury stop in Tamworth, so there is no "express" that misses out Tamworth. Surely it cannot be £7.xx from Burton to Tamworth - an approximate 70% fare increase for a distance increase of perhaps 15%? She said that she could do me 2 tickets - one from Burton to Tamworth and one from Tamworth to Ledbury. Cost £14.xx. Saving about £4. While still higher than I'd expected, my decision was obvious. The tickets were valid on any trains.

I consider this actually quite fraudulent. I specifically asked about the cheapest fare, and yet was offered a fare 30% or so higher than that. That is just plain wrong. There is a separate issue of why a train company can charge 70% more for a distance increase of about 15%, given that they do not offer any value added - eg an express service skipping the closer station.

On a side note, the train was NOT a no-change service. We had to change trains at Birmingham from a quite plush train to a very old and loud two-coach diesel with standing room only. We traversed from one end of the platform to the other passing a train to Stansted sitting in the middle of the same platform (i.e. 3 trains arranged along the same platform). We were only told this after sitting on the train for a few minutes after entering Birmingham New Street. I could have chosen a faster service to Gloucester that did involve a change, but had stuck with the Ledbury train as I thought it would be hassle free!

I keep hoping that Britain's railways have turned a corner, but there is still so much wrong. The fare structure is incomprehensible and generally very expensive (compared even to 1 person driving) unless such fares are booked considerably in advance. The services are slower than they need be (even the £10billion West Coast mainline has only shaved about 10-15 minutes off many 2.5 hour services I believe) often with unnecessary long stops (ours stopped for 5-10 minutes twice plus the long changeover at Birmingham). Of course, no one really wants to encourage people to use the trains because there actually isn't the capacity (as shown on a full suburban service late on a Saturday!). Where is the joined up thinking in transport policy we were promised?

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