/ Travel & Leisure

Train fares: a riddle wrapped in a mystery

We’re lucky if we can find the rules on train tickets and fares, let alone understand them.

Many of you contact us to complain about trains; too crowded, too late, too often cancelled.

But there’s another theme – possibly the most consistent over the years – which is the impenetrable rules that govern ticketing and fares. Only one in three passengers say they fully understand all the ticket types, according to a new government survey.

Train ticket confusion

Why are two singles cheaper than a return? How far in advance is ‘Advance’, and how do I know whether I qualify for ‘super off-peak’ or just ‘off peak’? Why is it cheaper to split a journey on some routes? Why are the National Rail rules written in six-point font?

I’ll share a recent frustrating experience where complex rules cost me dear, as I suspect this will be a familiar story. I bought an Advance ticket from London to Exeter, one-way, for £54 from thetrainline.com. I had to change it to the previous day, at an earlier time, which happened to be much cheaper at £18.50.

I had noted that an administration charge for changing the ticket date and time would apply and was willing to pay the £10. However, it transpired that this was not the only cost of changing the ticket. The rules stated that even if I travelled at a much cheaper time, I wasn’t allowed to pay less than the original amount.

This double penalty meant that the actual cost of changing my ticket would have been £45.50, not £10. And, needless to say, if I had had to switch to a more expensive time, I would still have had to pay the extra charge. A case of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’.

Thetrainline.com’s response is that its site does say this (not in a place I saw at the time, though) and the industry sets the rules.

Rail refunds campaign

Confusion is rife in train fares, but also in the process of claiming a refund if the journey is delayed or cancelled – as 47 million were in 2014.

We have submitted a super-complaint to the rail regulator, calling for train companies to make it easier for you to claim for rail delays. The regulator is already reviewing tickets; recommendations are due in the spring. Passengers have suffered shoddy systems at both ends of the journey for too long.


A clue might be people queueing up to buy a ticket from the counter and no queue at the ticket machine.

I don’t travel by train very often and those ticket machines are like looking at another language.

If you travel by train regularly, you might understand how the train system works but for occasional users it is very confusing.

I agree with Alfa. We travel by train quite a few times every year but getting the tickets is always a worry as there seem to be so many traps and tricks to catch out the unwary or inexperienced. Our nearest station is not very convenient, and sometimes the ticket office is closed, so I generally get the tickets on-line using the local operator’s website, which is actually fairly good once you get the hang of it [Abellio Greater Anglia]. I don’t bother with trying to look for split-ticketing reductions because I would be concerned that there would be an error and a hefty surcharge would be payable. The biggest drawback with buying advance tickets is the rule that you MUST travel on the specified train in the designated seat on each leg of the journey or risk being surcharged at the full maximum fare on the day and time of travel. I have seen people brought to tears by the rigid enforcement of this rule and there should be a way of being able to pay just the difference in price.

I entirely repudiate the need for administrative charges. They are just a form of unjustified exploitation. It’s nothing but an unclear deterrent dating from the nationalised industry time when the railways were in a permanent state of cold war with their passengers. We are now described as customers but are not treated as such.

An anecdote: I needed to go to Norwich last week on the earliest train in the off-peak period. The 08:37 would get me there shortly after nine which is what I wanted. Arriving at my local station a few minutes before 08:30 I used the ticket machine to buy my ticket. I had not realised that it would be impossible to specify that I required an off-peak ticket and the only choice was an “anytime” ticket. Given that there were no more trains to Norwich in the peak period at that point in time, and that the next train would depart in the off-peak period, it seems completely crackpot to me that the software in the ticket machine cannot cope with this. Since I needed a ticket, realised that time was against me, thought there would probably be a queue at the ticket office, and bore in mind that I still had to go over the bridge and along the platform to get on the train which was nearly due, I accepted the higher-priced ticket and proceeded on my way. On reaching my platform I saw on the departure screen that my train was running approximately four minutes late [it comes from Liverpool so anything can happen] and I would have had time, if I had known about the ticket machine’s foibles and the late-running train, to either wait for the ticket machine to switch to off-peak mode or use the ticket office. And when I examined my ticket closely after getting on the train I noticed that the time it was issued was . . . 08:30. It was also a touch galling to find that many passengers were buying their tickets from the conductor on the train without any questions asked or any surcharges. I shall know next time.

It is also peculiar that I could have bought an off-peak day-return for one penny more than a single but to go out one day and come back another day, as I needed to, two separate single tickets [or an off-peak return for the same cost] are required. Just what this is designed to protect against I haven’t a clue.

I booked train from southampton to penrith. As it was cheaper i booked return southampton to euston and two advance singles (first class) euston to Penrith. There was a major problem at southampton and there were no trains. as I had a 6.30pm train from london, there was no way I was going to make it. As I had a 0900 appointment in penrith the next day, I had no option but to return home and drive. Thus, all my rail tickets were useless. I was offered a refund on southampton to london but my issue was that as this train did not run, I could not use the other tickets, even though they were all booked together at the same time . After 6 months I eventually got all my money back. Surely, if one part fails which results in other legs being useless, they should automatically refund the whole lot.

” Only one in three passengers say they fully understand all the ticket types, according to a new government survey.” Link please.

Nice to see you plebs’ side of the fence, Peter 🙂

From your figures, I think you would have been less than a tenner extra out of pocket if you’d simply written off the original ticket and started over.

Not sure if others help out fellow motorists by handing car park tickets with plenty of time left on them out of the window as one egresses to lucky entrants. Perhaps what we need is a way to help others use unwanted advance purchased train tickets. ridewithwhich.co.uk perhaps? 😉

I think that’s the wrong way round to solve the problem Roger. Better to have a system whereby the customer can return the unwanted and unused items for a full refund or replacement just as you can in most other retail situations.

I am sure that if one gets a full refund then people will book lightly knowing they will not suffer if the idle thought does not lead to a journey. This could lead to under-utilised trains. Or perhaps a touts market.

There might be the odd capricious purchase but they would still have to apply for their refund and surrender their unused tickets before the designated day of travel. Since, in most cases, the return half of a period return can be used on any day within the next thirty days I don’t see why the outward half has to be so restricted. It’s different for advance purchase off-peak saver tickets because they are sold at a discount to compensate for the restrictions.

I don’t see why people should not be able to offer tickets they can’t use to other travellers – they are unlikely to attract a premium I should think. I expect it says Not Transferable on the tickets; would it matter?

John Ward says:

” I think that’s the wrong way round to solve the problem Roger. Better to have a system whereby the customer can return the unwanted and unused items for a full refund or replacement just as you can in most other retail situations.”

It’s a bit like a sale item, John. No obligation for refund unless faulty. Or perhaps a more accurate comparison would be air fares. Looking at this from the helicopter, the firms touting these cheap tickets have bought forward space on the train and secured a tremendous wholesale price. They therefore will sell at a modest profit provided they are guaranteed it (no refund and no upgrades that involve lower fares unless forfeited as Peter did). I believe but am not certain that the return legs are more expensive precisely because of their open validity (although they won’t be fully open – time will be more or less fixed even if the day can vary).

I am told that getting seats going north from London around Christmas and New Year are very much in demand. Who knows going down to the Wast Country on a Friday night has some much favoured trains.

And I daresay a ticket with a seat attached being even better. : )

The West Country sounds good…………Nice

Whatever the law might be in relation to returns, I think railway companies should treat their customers decently and be prepared to refund for unused tickets. They need to update their outlook on customer service generally. It would be nice to hear what they have to say about this issue but I expect I hope in vain.

The railways are past masters at demand management through price adjustment and at and off-peak yield management.

Would you apply that to airlines too, John? If so ticket prices for everyone would rise. At the moment it is the dynamic customers who subsides those who plan ahead without changes. If refunds were guaranteed there would be no advantage and it would effectively be the other way around. Yuppies could just buy forward tickets for every train they might want to catch (nice and cheaply way in advance) and cash in all but the one they use.

I appreciate this is exceedingly complex, and extending my suggestions to airlines would just add further confusion to the present bamboozledom. The planes I have flown on have never had more than one or two empty seats so there must be a lot of work going on behind the scenes with price adjustments in order to fill the planes – even to the extent that overbooking is a deliberate policy in the expectation of no-shows.

With trains there is no limit to the number of tickets that will be sold for any particular train because station ticket offices do not check which train the passenger will use and season ticket-holders can use whichever train they like; passengers who have not booked in advance and got a reservation have to take their chance on getting a seat. I think there need to be some terms and conditions to deter advance purchase flooding of the sort you describe. My suggestions are probably only relevant to the off-peak when there is usually spare capacity.

I believe there is an allocation of advance tickets for each train that changes week by week [or day by day perhaps] according to sales and availability. I have noticed that the advance ticket price for each train differs from others before and after and from one day to the next according to popularity. There is an advance time limit [13 weeks] for booking the tickets and the best prices are for the early bookers [unlike air travel where late booking is often cheaper]. The yuppies in your example would have to be making an advance booking every day in order to acquire a succession of tickets that would enable them to decide later which ones they wished to use and seek refunds for the unused ones. I would suggest that refunds would have to be sought before the day of travel designated on the ticket. I should be most surprised if many people would wish to get involved routinely in the amount of administration required to make this process advantageous for them. It could also cause them cash- flow problems [the train company could say “Yes we will refund you, but not until thirty days after the booked date of travel”. I would not be against a reasonable charge of, say, £2, for administering the refund [on-line £1]. I can’t see this notion getting up a head of steam, however.

Advance tickets from Virgin (King’s Cross – Aberdeen) got released 20 weeks in advance in 2015; the cheapest got snapped up in a day of two. Well, nobody told me – the website only noted Kings Cross – Edinburgh were available that early. Then I found I couldn’t book through from my local station because SouthWest trains only release their tickets 12 weeks in advance. And then I found SouthWest trains at Havant ticket office refused to admit they offer Anytime Return tickets AT ALL so I had to buy two singles at full price. And then the return from Aberdeen was 3hours 36mins late into Kings Cross. And then I was so late, I found there was an evening bus-replacement service on the route home – which missed my local station. And finally, my 100% refund was conveniently ‘lost’ by Virgin – they lied. They said the cheque was in the post – and then a minute later let slip that the cheque had never been sent due to letter-printing system problems – they can’t even lie consistently. What a hopeless state of affairs. Lying, incompetence, smoke-and-mirrors obfuscation – I’m glad I’m retired and can use the car – even if it’s 600 miles to Aberdeen, it’s a damnsight less hassle than all this faffing about trying to avoid being ripped off. A plague on the TOCs’ houses – and this is a railway enthusiast talking.