/ Travel & Leisure

Peak train times are too long and confusing

Lots of clocks telling different times

You probably know that peak train times vary according to the rail company you’re travelling with, but did you realise just how much they can vary? Prepare to be very confused…

What would you call peak (and therefore more expensive) time for train travel?

For the evening I’d say perhaps 5pm; for the morning, 8.30am. But 3pm, 7pm and 11.30am? Really?

Yes, really.

When exactly is peak time?

We asked train companies what their peak times are. Some are very simple – for example Merseyrail’s morning peak ends at 09.30. In the evening, some companies don’t have one at all, as you can see in the footnotes of our handy diagram below, which shows peak times from London.

London has longer peaks, which doesn’t seem unreasonable on the face of it. But some manage to be simultaneously very long and very varied. Virgin’s morning peak ends ‘around 11.30’ at London Euston.

‘Around’ includes peak time ending at 10.12 if you are travelling from Oxenholme in the Lake District. But if you’re coming from Penrith, 30 miles and one stop from Oxenholme, it ends a whole hour later at 11.12. Virgin tells us this is due to timetabling constraints caused by the Department for Transport.

If all these times and numbers are confusing you, I haven’t even started yet… you may want to draw breath or take a fortifying sip of your cuppa here. Down the road at London King’s Cross, East Coast’s morning peak ends at 10.05 – unless:

  • You’re travelling first class, when it’s 07.59
  • Or travelling with an off-peak day return or travelcard, when it’s 09.54
  • Or super off-peak, when it’s 11.17

Rail companies have too many restrictions

The good news is, if you’re booking in advance via the internet, you can rely on computers to spit out the right results – although you still won’t know why they’re the right results.

But if you had the foolish notion of going to a station, buying a ticket and getting on a train, be warned. You’ll find this dizzying spread of restrictions in your way.

Bemused at how on earth passengers can make sense of all these times, we contacted The Association of Train Operating Companies. They told us that ‘four out of five passengers are happy with their journey’. Apart from the fact that they’re missing the point, this is something I find very hard to believe.

Diagram of peak train times

Fares too high; restrictions too complicated. I’m sticking with my trusty car!

Once again with the railways, this is all about revenue and not about capacity [except, arguably, 0800 – 0900 and 1700-1800 within thirty miles of a major conurbation]. Pricing leisure travellers off the commuter services has gone on for decades [British Rail was actually quite good at demand management] but the game has now changed to one of catching commuters who can use the later morning trains or go home before 1700 or after 1800 when capacity is usually not an issue. Once a train is running the extra cost of more passengers is insignificant and the discomfort level of peak time trains is a greater deterrent to the optional traveller.

To every question, ATOC say “four out of five passengers are happy with their journey”. I think this is the most extreme misinterpretation of the available evidence of all time – unless expecting a train journey to be over-priced, delayed, dirty, noisy, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and with unreasonable terms & conditions, has now become the norm. I experience at least two of those on every single journey; for every person on my train there must be four other people who travel in a paralell system that runs perfectly – unbelievable, but obviously true because ATOC says so!

tony millington says:
25 August 2010

The whole rail fare structure is nightmare and makes it impossible to plan your journey to get optimum value. A couple of years ago cheap day returns where made not acceptable on my line for the return journey out of London from about 4.30pm to 6.30pm (I say about as I have no idea of the exact times).
Off peak times should be universally imposed by whoever oversees the train operators. By allowing individual decisions travellers are in the dark and being ripped off. Changing the times is an easy and mostly hidden way for rail companies to increase fares.

Rob Barrowman says:
26 August 2010

As a regular East Coast train traveller I think the peak/off peak/super off peak ticket deals are confusing to put it mildly. For a bit of sport get your hands on the East Coast Ticket Guide booklet ( a 13 page rivetting read) and then ask at a ticket sales desk for the best ticket price and when you can travel. The two very rarely tally. I have been travelling up and down from Peterborough to London for years and every year the rules seem to change. But the contradictions are constant.
Incidentally, in the Guide it states that peak time starts at 15.55. No mention of your quoted 15.00. Not yet anyway. Can’t wait for the next edition.

Rob Barrowman.

geoff brown says:
26 August 2010

Geographical differences around the country are inevitable, but a review should be carried out to iron out arbitrary differences- especially from the same conurbation. I suspect some people are nervous of actually buying on line (notwithstanding the discounts), but the journey planner times and fares matrices are not difficult to follow, so you can select (and print off for reference), before buying at the ticket office or from a machine, already knowing which one you need and what price you are expecting..

I hate the ATOC and the link of rail fares to RPI – destined to hit between 8 and 10% rises under our new era of trough feeding politicians.

Martin George says:
28 September 2010

You may or may not have noticed that after the weekend of 5th September 2010, at least 2 (and maybe more) train operating companies quietly re-arranged their “off-peak” and advance purchase ticketing practices resulting in effective fare increases in excess of 25% on some routes. In particular this affects a journey I regularly make via a combination of South Eastern and First Great Western. On a trip 1st/2nd September, I was able to purchase two advance singles totalling £61 for the journey. For the same journey on 7th/8th September those fares had been withdrawn, and the only advertised prices were £95.50 anytime single for the outward journey, and £25 advance purchase single for the return. An anytime flexible standard class return was over £141 (used to be £83 for route and times I required). Despite FGW telling me it was a problem with fares having not been loaded onto their booking engine, I had the same problem for the trip 16/17 September. On 29/30 September, I will reluctantly be going by car. It seems TOCs can do this quite legitimately with no comeback from any watchdog body.

Pandora Smith says:
5 March 2011

I have just booked an open return from Newcastle to Doncaster. The tickets allows return travel at “off – peak” time (it allowed me to travel outward at 8.24 a.m which I would have thought was peak) but I haven’t been able to find out anywhere what the off peak time actually is. I have spent at least an hour trying to make a simple booking which may prove to be a bad one.