/ Travel & Leisure

Are Britain’s railways better or worse since privatisation?

Steam train

It’s easy to look back on the train services of yesteryear with rose-tinted glasses, but were they really that much better? And what about the future of train travel – are those signals pointing up, or down?

I’m old enough to remember British Rail: InterCity 125s; Regional Railways; Weekend First upgrades for £1; even connections being held if your train was late.

But I also remember there being just one direct train a day from my town of Hull to London. It left at some ungodly hour, so most of the time you were on the appalling Pacer ‘railbus’ to Doncaster.

Yet if you were lucky, it was the comfier, older InterCity 125 that pulled up at Doncaster, its turbochargers shrieking as it accelerated.


There I go, starting to think things used to be better. But perhaps I’m wrong…

Lots of things are ‘up’ in relation to trains. Frequency is one – when Passenger Focus looked at frequency of UK trains versus those in seven other European countries, it found Britain had the most frequent service in the short and longer distance bands (we were third in the medium band).

Government spending is another. There are estimates that, despite privatisation, public funding of the railways is three times more than it was under British Rail – in real terms. Some claim the figure is even higher.

Even the government’s own figures show public funding has ballooned from £2.3bn in 1993-4 to £5.2bn in 2008-9 (and both figures are at 2008-9 prices, too). A funny kind of privatisation.

But isn’t spending better than cutbacks? Isn’t it better to be talking about opening lines rather than closing them?

Unfortunately, there’s lots of evidence to show the money hasn’t always been well spent – when the Office of Rail Regulation compared Network Rail with its European counterparts, it found it up to 40% less efficient in terms of how Network Rail spends its money.

The price you pay to travel by train

Unfortunately, fares are also up – by more than inflation. And it’s already been announced that they’ll go even higher next year.

But it’s not as clear cut as it might seem. When Passenger Focus looked at fares in the UK against other European countries, it found Britain’s tickets to be both the cheapest (longer distance advance tickets) and the most expensive (long distance walk-up return tickets).

What do you think? Has the situation improved overall for you? Perhaps things are better, but not by as much as they should be for the money spent?

Since privatisation, I think that train travel in the UK has got:

Worse (64%, 209 Votes)

Better (19%, 62 Votes)

Neither better nor worse (17%, 54 Votes)

Total Voters: 325

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Anne Wollenberg says:
18 February 2011

Southeastern Trains are so bad, I’m having to move house so I don’t have to get the train any more.

W.S.Becket says:
18 February 2011

I don’t know what Mr Dilks is talking about when he says that Hull only had one train a day to Kings Cross in BR times. There were actually four through services, leaving Paragon at 08.45, 10.23 (Pullman), 13.33 and 16.55. All were expresses.
Britain always had a more frequent service of trains than most other countries – these feature is nothing new
The railways were privatised to bring in market expertise in order to eliminate the subsidy (which was actually very small in relation to mainline European systems). This expertise has seen the subsidy rise four-fold whilst fares have increased by a factor of ten.
It is worth noting that in spite of all the tax-payers money used since privatisation, journeys on the railways have fallen to about one-third of what they were when the railway were nationalised in 1948. Goods traffic, of course, has almost entirely evaporated.

W.S.Becket says:
21 February 2011

1991 – 97 was mostly in the privatised and not BR period.
If you want another comparison between BR and its successors, take the period of bad weather we had a few weeks ago. Entire services were cancelled – Kings Cross to Peterborough especially – whilst he read of horror tales about hundreds having to sleep on the platforms of Kings Cross or in suburban trains at Redhill.
In 1963 we had a far more severe winter with month-long snow that was shoulder-high in parts of the hoime counties. Nevertheless, during this period 53% of all trains in and out of Kingsw Cross, Brioad Street and Moorgate ran to time (which in those days meant right time). 75% ran within ten minutes of right time and in the entire seven weeks of snow only nine (9) trains ran more than half an hour late.
On top of that, the weather was not the only problem we had at that time since we were trying to bring in a fleet of diesels that were generally less use than ornament.

Alan Rickards says:
14 January 2014

The big difference between the winters of 1963 and 2013/14 is that in ’63 many trains were still hauled by heavy steam locos, if not, almost as heavy diesels. The EMUs and DMUs of today are considerably lighter formations and therefore more severely affected by snow and ice. Nothing whatever to do with privatisation!

W.S.Becket says:
14 January 2014

Dmu’s were no more affected by snow than loco-hauled trains. Weight was not a factor. Electric trains suffered from ice on the third rail; something that was very difficult to combat. In 1963 we were battling with a brand new fleet of diesel locomotives, very few of which could be relied to complete half a day’s work. I also remember an A2 Paciofic on an up Newcastle sleeper, running hours late and having to throw its fire out on the main line at Ganwick – injectors frozen.

“journeys on the railways have fallen to about one-third of what they were when the railway were nationalised in 1948” This is simply untrue. Journeys before the pandemic struck were higher than in 1914, the previous high point of passenger travel, on a system half the length. I’m no great lover of privatisation but passenger journeys have steadily risen since the break up of BR.

I do remember British Rail and consider privatisation to be appalling way to run a national railway system. I particularly dislike having a for profit company owning and maintaining the infrastucture.

There is a problem with your basic question though. It’s 18 years since privatisation so a fair comparison is between how the railways are now and how they would have been had British Rail continued. Not so easy. For me they are much worse now.

I recently travelled to Sheffield on cross country services and spent the outward jouney in a tiny seat with not enough leg space. Very uncomfortable. The return journey was worse. The train was seriously over crowded (only one unit of coaches) and I spent the first half of the journey in a corridor between coaches next to the Guard’s room with between 8 and 11 other passengers. The guard checked our tickets but had no chance of going any further down the train. I have to say I did not feel safe.

The ticketing system is a mess. Finding the cheapest fare takes hours of research and even then you cannot rely on railway staff agreeing with the stated terms and conditions.

I read, the other day, of a plea for cheaper rail fares and the hope that motoring would force the rail companies to see reason. That was 1902. I also remember the time when one could decide on a rail journey, turn up at the station and get the only available ticket for the required destination. It just remained to get on the platform and go. Do that these days and it’s financial suicide. Trains were cold, dirty and slow, but they got you there and there was a romance and excitement to it all. Dr. Beeching came along with his hatchet, freight disappeared and gradually the system has morphed, through British Rail and privatisation to what we have today. I use the train for leisure, but my heart goes out to the commuter who stands all the way to work and spends upto 20% of his disposable income just getting to the place where he earns it. Every January we are informed that fares will rise by 6%. Standing on a continental platform one sees double decker trains come and go. Our system can’t cope with these. Places like the Watford Viaduct bottle neck main line services and the Western region remains diesel. With the country strapped for cash, the only highlight is the agreement for Crossrail and vague talk of new North South routes. Rail services are better and less haphazard than they were in my youth, but they go to fewer destinations, there are many more bodies to shift around and they charge you an arm and a leg to get there. No wonder there are traffic jams on the M6.

W.S.Becket says:
19 February 2011

Mr Hill writes: ‘Standing on a continental platform one sees double decker trains come and go. Our system can’t cope with these. ‘

Had he stood on any station from Charing Cross to Daretford between 1948 and 1968 he would have seen – er – double decker trains. It was the passenger and not the system that voted against them.

William S Becket is slightly distorting the truth here. There were only two “double deck” trains. They were built as an experiment and were not truly double deck. Passengers didn’t like them because they were cramped and claustrophobic but they mainly failed because they took much longer to load and unload, no 30 second station stops with these train.

Indeed. I do remember seeing them and riding on them. As a tourist and railway enthusiast, they were kind of cool and novel. But they were certainly not really double decker in the way that buses are.


I used to travel all over the country via BR to go to various camp sites (used to use them as a base to hike) After Beeching a great many of the country lines and stations were closed vastly diminishing the ease at which I could travel. Many superb places were and are no longer able to be visited. Huge increase in motor traffic..

So for me it isn’t cost of fares or frequency of trains – It is the fact that many places can no longer be visited without a car.

We now have a mass transport system, with potential economies of scale, that is more costly than private transport. I know the costs quoted for car use are about 40 pence per mile – but that includes a chunk of depreciation. Given that a car is essential for many these days due to p-p-particularly poor bus services, the fixed costs are always going to be incurred. So, my journey to work, by rail, costs about 30% more than driving. Trains are often overcrowded, with many passengers standing.

The fairs charged are arcane: randomly high or low. I just want to be able to buy a ticket for a reasonable price. I don’t want to have to plan every journey weeks in advance, spend half-an-hour on-line getting the best price and then buying a non-refundable ticket – that’s not how life should be.

Give us decent, reliable, affordable trains; like the rest of the world has.

I think it’s a fallacy to suggest that other countries have it any better than us. I have lived in Holland and Germany, 2 supposed bastions of rail operations and I have to say that there are many things which are a lot worse.

ie. In Germany, almost every ICE I have ever caught has been at least 10 minutes late, many are up to 40 minutes late – German stations never list all stops on the departure boards – German conductors can be quite rude

In Holland, you don’t get a seat in rush hour because most of the Netherlands commutes to Amsterdam, like I did from Haarlem. The trains from Haarlem are disgusting, decrepit old double deckers which generally stink, many ticket machines don’t work and you cannot buy a ticket on the train without paying a 40 euro penalty, and if one small thing breaks on the network, the whole country grinds to a stop.

In Britain, the trains are way better than they used to be, as is the investment and infrastructure, but in real terms, this means nothing to a commuter who has to squeeze in every morning and night.

The West Coast Mainline is the best for investment. All new trains (commuter and Intercity) and the line recently had an “upgrade”.

For me the problem is just with Network Rail, they overcharge massively for any work that is done, then outsource it, signals and points are constantly failing despite having spent billions on “upgrading” the route and the lack of real time info is shocking.

Our trains just aren’t big enough in the rush hour. Our main focus should be on expanding the loading gauges of all lines into London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds so that you can fit double decker trains on.

I feel I might be reiterating points already made here but I most certainly do feel things have gotten worse since privatisation. Especially as I feel more people are now using trains then they were 10 or so years ago. Years of crowded, standing room only commutes, (that’s if the peak time train isn’t cancelled), with big fat profit margin ticket prices makes my blood boil. Rail infrastructure needs to be run on a not-for-profit basis.

W.S.Becket says:
23 February 2011

Actually less use is made of the railways today than in years past and the level is now about one-third of what it was during the early 1950’s.
The overcrowding is largely because trains are much shorter then they used to be : in steam days trains of sixteen and seventeen coaches were quite common and the idea of running two or three coach trains on anything but a rural branch would have been laughable.

Totally agree with W.S.Becket. Train lengths used to match the number of expected travellers. It was not unusual for trains to be longer than intermediate stations platforms so you had to move down the train to get off. Now the attitude is to run the shortest trains you can get away with.

Alan Rickards says:
14 January 2014

I agree that trains used to be longer, but they were often far less frequent than they are today. In other words, there are as many, if not more, carriages traversing many routes, but spread across a more frequent service.

W.S.Becket says:
14 January 2014

With respect, that is rather a trite observation. The number of coaches moving between two points is largely irrelevant. What matters are the number of coaches on service at the time people want to use them. In addition, trains convey a minimal number of coaches compared to BR years. From North Wales to London, the morning train has five (!) coaches. It used to have seventeen.

Alan Rickards says:
14 January 2014

Not trite at all Mr Beckett. I would rather have a service that consisted of four x four-coach trains per hour than one x 16-coach train!

W.S.Becket says:
14 January 2014

Yes, but your trains would cost four times as much to run – for the same income. That is not a way to run a railway – or, indeed, any business.

“Actually less use is made of the railways today than in years past and the level is now about one-third of what it was during the early 1950’s.” This is simply untrue. Rail travel, before the pandemic” was higher than its highest point at the beginning of the 20th century on a network with half the route miles of 1914.

“the level is now about one-third of what it was during the early 1950’s.” Even in 2011 when this was written this untrue and now, in 2021, but for the pandemic rail travel would be at the highest levels ever on a net work half the size it was in 1914. This is using the figures for 2019.

It isn’t the same income there are more travellers now than there ever have been, pre pandemic at least.

“With respect, that is rather a trite observation.” Far from it! It rather demonstrates that you do not understand passenger’s needs. Passengers want to turn up and go without to much waiting. Multiple trains per hour are much more to the passenger’s liking than one massive train per hour.

I heard some appallingly smug rep from the rail companies on the radio this morning dismiss this report as flaky. One thinks – yet again – that if train companies spent less time on PR & denying the problem, and more time trying to provide a customer friendly service, we might all get somewhere.

A few salient points.
1) Whatever the merits of this survey, anyone trying to use rail as a way of getting around knows that this is a fact.
2) I have on occasion had to correct staff trying to sell me the wrong ticket, and once been offered the same ticket at a variety of prices, before the seller conceded he had no idea how much it should be. I bought it at one of the – seemingly random – prices offered, in the face of his oppostion that it should be cheaper, as I had a train to catch.
3) The spokesman referred to a Passenger Focus survey as more reliable. He may be right, however this survey did not look into the question of tickets’ variable pricing. It did – reliably – say that over half of travellers think trains are overpriced.

Why in God’s name is this even a discussion? In much of mainland Europe, train travel is priced by distance. Everyone can understand it. You pay, you go. Flexi-super-saver early birds are not an improvement, they’re just a con dressed up as a fool. Give us our trains back!

. How can a comparison be made between yesteryears fuddy-duddy, nostalgic smutty steam train service along with all the eccentricities (Orient Express, The Railway Children, Brief Encounter, different rail time zones, etc.) and today’s faceless, uninspiring plasticised railways. For example, how uncreative a move it is that the old London Bridge Victorian canopy couldn’t be incorporated into the new build at London Bridge Station. Rather, we’re in for another structure with absolutely no ambiance of ‘trains’ that will bore us to an apoplexy as we find ourselves trudging through another sandwich-bar concourse that is no different to a ghastly high street shopping mall. It’s not just ticket prices that matter it’s the whole railway experience that has potential to be so “thrilling”. Except, one does notice regular anticipatory train spotters still loitering at the ends of platforms seeming still ready to drool over the sight of today’s nondescript trains arriving into stations.

W.S.Becket says:
26 February 2011

That is it. The railway of the 1950’s was not only value for money (especially as passengers were small beer in relation to the tonnage of goods and minerals moved) but a train journey was a highly interesting acrtivity. Now, as you point out, train travel has descended to the same featureless, drab and soulless level of everything else in 21st century Britain.
(Incidentally, the Orient Express never ran on British soil. It operated between Paris and Istanbul).

This comment completely misses the point. The railway in the 21st century is dominated by the needs of passengers. Your personal view of the present day is totally irrelevant. What the public wants is fast and frequent trains. The railway must be doing something right as the massive increase in passengers shows.

Gerard Phelan says:
28 February 2011

Nostalgia and efficiency make poor bedfellows. No matter how attractive the past seems through the lens of time, you generally have to choose one or the other.
Look at road travel – the private motor car. Do people choose to potter along rural byways at 30mph in their Austin 7 and wallow in the scenic wonder of the gently passing world? NO they do not! Only the newest car they can afford will do, rushing along as fast (or faster) as the laws of the land and physics allows and where they possibly can, they avoid the narrow winding roads of yesteryear in preference to the concrete jungles that are modern motorways.
Look at air travel – the province of the long distance traveller. Do they long for a plane with a real propeller and restrict their travel to only use Shoreham Airport in order to glory in its 1936 Grade 2 listed Terminal building? No?
If it does not work for the Motor Car or the Aeroplane why expect it to work for the Railway?

W.S.Becket says:
28 February 2011

Nostalgie, my foot. If the service on the railways had kept pace with technology, no-one would be complaining but as trains have become faster, the level of reliability has declined alarmingly. Under BR you could go for a train with the cirtainty that not only would it run as per the timetable but that it would arrive punctually. Nor was there any nonsense about reserved seats – you could change your mind at the last moment and alter your train and route on a whim and without paying extra.

I travel regularly from the Highlands of Scotland all over Scotland and England by train and my complaints are similar to everbody else’s – trains are late/cancelled, seats are uncomfortable, toilet facilities are a disgrace and MUST be a health hazard, there is far too little space for stowing luggage and too often the heating system is off when it should be on and on when it should be off. There are other factors however which make train travel a nightmare – the number of passengers who insist on having long shouted conversations on their mobile phones – even in the so called “Quiet Coach” of East Coast trains we have mobile tones of all varieties going off constantly, computers pinging and zinging, and personal dvd players “leaking” soundtracks. Ticket collectors/guards are reluctant to get passengers to move luggage off seats so that standing passengers can get a seat. Scotrail Catering Trolleys are famous for running out of hot water – sometimes before everybody has had a chance of at least one hot drink. I know I now sound like the mythical miserable Scot but I really just want to travel in relative peace and comfort, especially when it costs an arm and a leg!

It seems to me that the main thing lacking in the post-privatisation era is any feeling of “network”. It does matter if train from train company A is 9 minutes late (aka on time) if I miss my connection and have to wait 2 hours for the next from train company B. Will either train company take responsibility for this cumulative delay, of course not. Will train company B hold its train by a minute so those passengers running across the subway can catch it, regrettably no – and I’ve been abused by rail company staff for holding open the doors so that following running passengers can catch it.

And last week I had the most ludicrous situation yet, when having been issued with a faulty ticket (by a guard on a First Great Western train) the ticket office staff at Waterloo refused to simply replace the ticket with one which was readable and would work the automatic rauil and tube barriers. Why? Because South West Trains runs Waterloo and they can’t reissue FGW tickets – absurd considering the ticket was valid over more SWT miles than FGW miles. And they kept on saying that I wouldn’t buy something in Sainsbury’s and expect Tesco to change it – a particularly poor analogy since as far as I know, supermarkets don’t sell services that are valid in their competitors – unlike railways – as it’s a network!

W.S.Becket says:
6 March 2011

Strange how we once had about 120 railway companies yet they all managed to work as a unified body. This was thanks to an organisation called the Railway Clearing House.

When you wrote this the era of 120 companies was 90 years in the past. Plus it was a myth that they all got on.

With no competion Virgin charge over £100 from Glasgow to Birnmingham travel 100 miles further to London and it’s just over £50 but there’s competition. What has happened to seat reservations? One can’t reserve a seat on half the trains and when one can the seat reservation system has borken down.

At least in BR days prices were consistant and you could pay your money and reserve a seat!

Jenifer Kay Ward says:
11 May 2011

I bought some train tickets two weeks ago to make a journey on business using cross country trains and trans pennine trains. I bought advance tickets which were significantly cheaper than the standard and other fairs on the internet via trainline.com. Earlier this week my schedule trained and I cancelled the business trip, which meant I needed to cancel the train tickets assuming that a week prior to the journey I could get a refund, (I had spen over £100). I then found out that advance tickets were none refundable! Even though I tried to cancel a week before! Does this not infringe on my consumer rights??? How do I get my money back for useless tickets I do not want? I have filled in complaint applications to all train companies concerned as I was nt informed clearly enough prior to purchase. Surely this is wrong!

Checking trainline.com it says “Specified train only. No refunds” for a cheap advance purchase. That is why they are cheap. If you want a flexible refundable ticket you need to pay more.

Why not require the companies to give a 50% refund to those who know in advance that they will not be travelling? I know the terms & conditions, but also know that they are unreasonable.

Buy a ticket that gives a refund if you are not certain you will travel. If you want to take advantage of a cheap fare with conditions attached you are given a choice and enter into a two way bargain. Maybe yet more fares could be introduced with different refunds attached? They are already complex enough I would have thought.

I think it is unreasonable to buy something when the terms and conditions are made clear and then wish to change them when it suits you.

In the most recent example the company that had set up a meeting cancelled it, just after I had bought my tickets. Most shops will accept returns of unused goods, though I very rarely take advantage of this.

“I think it is unreasonable to buy something when the terms and conditions are made clear and then wish to change them when it suits you.” Isn’t that what you want to do with penalty charges for parking, Malcolm? 🙂

If you had bought a more flexible ticket I assume it would have cost more, but you would have been able to use it at another time or get a refund. You took a decision that did not end up in your favour (perhaps you could make a claim for expenses on the company that caused your loss by cancelling the meeting?).

When you park you also accept the terms and conditions. I want to see those published penalties changed to more realistic levels.

I know how the system works but I would like to change it for the benefit of the public, much the same as you want to see an end to large penalties for infringing the rules for parking.

In the case that I referred to the company would have had notice of two weeks that I did not intend to travel. Yes I could have made a claim for expenses but it’s not the money that concerns me, just the principle. In the same way, I want to see an end to punitive overdraft charges though I have not had an overdraft.

There seems no need to change the system when you had a choice as to the ticket you bought. You went for the cheap option with restrictions, and the gamble failed. Had you paid full price you would not have had the problem.

I don’t see how “punitive” charges correspond to your experience – you are not paying any penalty charge. You are simply paying the minimum price you could, with conditions attached that you presumably knew of, for a service you then no longer required, and were not entitled to a refund.

In the case of overdrafts, the charges are published and taking unauthorised money from the bank attracts a penalty. Don’t take the money and you won’t be charged, or arrange an overdraft facility.

When parking, you have four choices: park elsewhere if you don’t like the terms, don’t pay at all – when a penalty can be expected, pay for the minimum time you think you’ll need and if you are late back you’ll pay a penalty, or if you are not sure how long you will need to stay, buy enough time to cover yourself. The issue is not whether a penalty is fair, but the size of the penalty. But you do have choices, as with rail tickets.

Hmmm. If a train company sells you a ticket for a journey and you don’t make that journey but the train company still manages to fill the seat I suspect it’s not entirely quite fair. Ticket prices vary immensely. An advanced ticket with seat reservation in 1st class North Wales to London is around £98. Now, a 1st ticket for exactly the same journey is around £480. That’s quite a difference.

Last time I encountered this problem, I discovered that my non-refundable tickets could have been exchanged for a trip on another date but could not have been refunded.

Some cheap advance hotel rooms are non refundable too – it is all down to the booking conditions.

Thanks Derek. I will look into that next time. As it happened, I used my tickets to visit a museum, an art gallery and then have a meal with an old friend who worked in the city where I had planned to go for a meeting. On the previous occasion when a meeting was cancelled by the same company, I used my tickets to travel to visit an Apple Centre and it was fixed free of charge despite being two and a half years after the guarantee had expired.

It seems unreasonable that most retailers offer refunds on unused goods yet we have train tickets that are non-refundable. Your views are noted, Malcolm, but I disagree.

To hopefully conclude this, as I said above, with a choice of rail tickets if you choose to buy the one that is cheap, but has the condition that it cannot be refunded, I do not see how then you think you are entitled to ignore your acceptance of the conditions and get a refund. Contracts bind both parties. You cannot have it both ways 🙂 Making use of your ticket for your entertainment seems the sensible way out – or giving it to someone else to use.

I am NOT ignoring the terms and conditions, Malcolm. I’m wanting fairer terms and conditions – just like you would like fairer penalties for parking.

It seems strange to accept a deal and then renege on it when it doesn’t work in your favour, that’s my view. It is not at all analagous to a parking penalty as I commented earlier.

However may I suggest we agree to differ.

One commenter suggested joining up the timing of various forms of transport so minimising journey times. That would need some overriding body that maybe licensed all the operators and was able to impose this requirement. I’m not sure with so many separate transport companies how that would be done. You would, however, have thought it in each company’s commercial interests to do this.

As I have said, I would like to see fairer terms & conditions and I suspect other users would like the same, Malcolm. Why should most shops voluntarily allow customers to return most unused products for a full refund or credit note whereas the train companies do not allow any refund on some tickets, even if the customer finds that they no longer need them weeks before.

Every time I travel by rail there is the risk that I might not use the tickets. Over the years, I could have spent considerably more if I had chosen more expensive tickets.

Thankfully, Derek has provided a possible solution and I hope that consumers will fight for fairer terms & conditions.

The condition I thought you did not want to accept was the non-refundable one. Have I misunderstood?

I have accepted the terms & conditions and would like to see them to be fairer in future.

I’ve mentioned free refunds on most goods bought from many shops. Go into a Marks & Spencer shop after Christmas and there will be a very long queue for refunds on clothing.

I rarely use rail but understand there are many different fares available. I’d see a “regular” flexible fare – anytime, any train; a cheaper off peak fare – flexible; a cheaper still day return and a family (off peak) bought on the day. I suppose cheaper advance fares give rail companies an idea of how full their trains might be and guarantee a journey at lower cost before other, later, full-fare travellers might fill the train. But that bargain must have some conditions attached.

I wonder what others think of fare structures.

OK, but what interests me is having the opportunity to exchange or obtain a refund on unwanted tickets prior to the travel date.

Terms and conditions are not always adhered to. I have a Senior Railcard which I am required to present with my ticket for a journey. I explained that I had left my card at home on both the outward and return journey and was not asked to pay the relevant fee. I now put my Railcard in my wallet and then buy tickets online.

You’ve probably got an honest face, wavechange. 🙂

As Malcolm has said, there is a range of different rail tickets available,and as Derek has said exchanges are available for tickets that cannot be used [but there is an admin fee].

Advance tickets offer the biggest discounts but there are only a limited number available on each train [and the number differs per train according to loading] and the discounts reduce as the departure date approaches. They also come with a seat reservation. I presume that refunds are not available for administrative simplicity rather than customer convenience. At present on most trains the reservations are shown on a card at the top of the seatback [as done in Victorian times]. When all trains have digital reservation screens associated with each seat so changes can be applied up to the last minute and displayed automatically these limitations would no longer be justifiable.

I frequently travel on trains that run from Norwich to Liverpool and seats sometimes have three reservations printed on the seatback cards for separate sections of the route. People seem to avoid sitting in seats with reservation cards attached even if their journey is outside the reserved portions. I only go thirty miles to the next stop but often find that the best seats are still available just before departure because the reservations are for Nottingham to Manchester, for example.

People not presenting a valid railcard will also be given a ‘let’ in future on the first occasion. There is no reason why the railcard could not be carried on a smartphone but this development is still in gestation.

Cross Country Trains now allow people to book a seat right up to the time of departure and if it is already occupied the occupant has to surrender it. This must cause some friction on crowded trains; perhaps very few people attempt to make use of this facility being fearful of a confrontation as they try to assert their rights. I cannot believe this is a good policy but I suppose a marketing man got a medal for it.

Thanks for this information, John. I am an infrequent traveller and prior to retirement, most of my journeys were steam hauled on preserved railways.

It would be useful to have railcards (and others) stored on smartphones.

W.S.Becket says:
11 May 2011

Speaking as an-ex-railwayman, the fact you cannot get a refund is nothing short of criminal. Under BR you would have received a refund less a five shilling clerical fee.

The railway company you are involved with will doubtless tell you you agreed to a contract, yawn, yawn which is really a lot of tosh.

The law should be changed for advance bookings so that no payment is taken until you have travelloed.

So far as I recall the terms and conditions for Advance, Super Advance, Saver, and Super Saver tickets under British Rail were identical to those for the current equivalents.

” Under BR you would have received a refund less a five shilling clerical fee.” Under certain conditions Bill, You agreed to be bound by the Terms and Conditions when you bought a ticket under BR and those T&Cs still apply today.
“The law should be changed for advance bookings so that no payment is taken until you have travelloed.” You are joking are you not?

What an intelligent and informative debate! Thank you everyone – greatly enjoyed reading these views.

I am old enough to remember traveling across the country by British Rail,
There is no comparison BR was so dirty , slow, non existent and just a horrendously stressful journey.
Today the trains run more frequently and I think cheaper.
1988 Lincoln to Southampton. £163 that was half of my monthly wage.
Today Lincoln to Southampton. £88
And I get compensation if my trains late, I remember being sat at a station all night as “the only ” train had broken down, no option of a coach or bus or anyone to help.
I just booked a ticket for a friend ; Norwich to London £10 trains every half hour !
You really want to go back to BR ? Wake up it was garbage,

And the terrific thing is, Tony, that it’s only £10 to go from London to Norwich even though that is a far superior experience in so many ways!

You are so right about British Rail. Although it had many good developments to its credit it was not a customer-facing organisation – and it also smashed up its trains [and it passengers’ lives] too often. Some of its problems were not its own fault but, apart from in the dining cars, travelling in a BR train was not usually a pleasant experience.

Ah – the dining car… I remember with great fondness the waiter, clinging for dear life with one hand to the seat back, whilst attempting to pour gravy with the other. Great fun.

Ah, the gravy. One lump or two, sir?


” it also smashed up its trains [and it passengers’ lives] too often” This is complete nonsense. Railways are by far the safest means of land transport and have been for a very long time. The carnage on the roads in the 50s and 60s was awful.

Yes, Paul, but British Railways was a much more accident prone organisation than the present day railways are where there are now very few passenger deaths and many years with none at all. What I wrote in 2017 was not nonsense.

I was not comparing the railways with the roads but trains under BR and trains today. Trains have always been safer than private road transport, largely because they run on tracks and have good signalling and control systems.

Phil says:
9 August 2021

Debatable as to whether BR had a worse record than the private companies that preceded it, certainly the 2nd and 3rd worst accidents in British railway history, Harrow and Lewisham, happened on it’s watch but the modern railway has better equipment, training and procedures than existed at the time.

Some accident statistics are presented here:-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rail_accidents_in_the_United_Kingdom and here:-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reported_Road_Casualties_Great_Britain