Generic response to generic ‘oh no, the trains are so expensive’ wittering

Inspired specifically by this piece, but more generally by the dozens of such pieces, left and right, which perpetuate ludicrous myths about the cost of travelling on the trains.

The fact is, in Great Britain, train fares rise at a couple of percentage points above inflation every year. This isn’t surprising – most of the cost of running a railway is that of paying people, and (at least when the economy’s growing, as it was for the last 10 years) people like to be given pay rises above inflation every year too.

So every year, trains get slightly more affordable to the average person (because the average person’s income rises by 2-3% above inflation), but slightly more expensive in cash terms, than they were the year before. Like sandwiches, or pies, or haircuts, or pretty much any other consumer service that can’t be imported from China.

(since such stories are rarely complete without a questionably chosen anecdote about outrageous prices – I went from London to Birmingham and back at the weekend, heading out in the Friday rush hour, with a £30 return ticket bought on the day. That works for me…)

23 thoughts on “Generic response to generic ‘oh no, the trains are so expensive’ wittering

  1. Especially if you're Simon Hoggart, and therefore incapable of a) booking in advance, b) not worrying about it because after all you're going to bill the Grauniad, or c) not whining about it in your bloody column.

  2. Since you ask for anecdotal evidence.
    Birmingham- Brighton. Booked the day before. Mid week. Train packed like a can of sardines. £68. SIXTY quid.

    Birmingham- Mertyr (Wales). Bought the same day. Train not packed. £65.

    If that's cheap for you, I'm happy for you chap, what can i say.

  3. Hmm. Were you travelling in the morning peak? If not, it's gbp56.70 to go Brum-Brighton on any train, and gbp39.20 via Kensington (either Crosscountry or the Southern trains to Watford then change to Virgin). Both walk-up fares, no booking required.

    Similarly, if you're not travelling in the morning peak, it's gbp45.50 return Brum-Merthyr, or a fairly standard gbp32 return for a short-advance booking (out this Weds back this Thu). Possibly not /cheap/, but certainly not /expensive/. Note that – at HMRC's skimpy lower rate of 25p per mile – even the gbp65 is exactly in line with the car, and the non-peak fares are much cheaper.

  4. Well, there's been a bit of a debate at Hagley Road to Ladywood, sir. Check it out if you want. In the meantime, I'm not sure what HMRC is. And yeah, it was morning peak. Coz you see, that was work-related. Is it a sin? Most people travel in the morning. most people don't book a week or more in advance because most people haven't got the type of life that lets them plan a week in advance, two hail marys and a coupe of slaps in the face? How does that work?

  5. Well, if it's work related then you weren't paying so why worry? Either the work you did was more profitable for your company than the fare, in which case *yay*, or it wasn't in which case you shouldn't have gone…

  6. Heaven forbid the thought this is snarky, but I suspect someone who doesn't know what HMRC is wasn't travelling on business.

  7. Oh, and "most people don’t book a week or more in advance"

    Red herring. I listed prices two days in advance. Normally, if I'm going to travel halfway across the country, I'll know about it two days in advance…

  8. Exactly.

    In the London Mayoral election, all the candidates yapped on about The Tube being a) Too expensive and b) Too crowded.

    As to a), to be honest, season tickets are excellent value.

    As to b) if they make it even cheaper then it will be even more crowded (if that's physically possible)

    Those are the laws of supply and demand.

    Possibility c) is have more trains or more lines. As shown by the Jubilee line extension, it only takes a couple of years before people change their work/life patterns and the new line is just as crowded as the old ones.

    It is a permanently moving target.

    O/T thanks for replying to Rog over at TW. My thoughts exactly, I'd just lost the energy to respond to that sort of grandstanding.

  9. Indeed. The main difference between train and road travel, though, is that at least overcrowded trains only take a couple of minutes longer than empty ones – so the investment on more trains and lines is rather more productive at lowering journey times than the investment in new road infrastructure.

  10. "because the average person’s income rises by 2-3% above inflation"

    Evidence? That would have made my pay rise this year 6% or 7%, surely? It was 3%, and that's a good year so personally rail travel is getting less, not more affordable. I bet I'll get 0% next year if I'm still in a job. Below inflation rises have been pretty common round our way.

    That's why, despite being a big rail fan, I only really use it (non-business) within London or up to Birmingham on Chiltern, where at least there's competition that keeps the fares down (although sadly the excellent value £15 return is a thing of the past now). The extra time and stress I'd have to allow to get to Euston for a specific train nearly cancels out the speed advantage. Besides, Marylebone's a lovely place to start a journey. There is, of course, a fourth option to Birmingham in WSMR, but since they're not allowed to stop there in case it makes Richard Branson cry I can't take them, which is a shame.

    There are other reasons for choice of transport mode – my partner and child went to Darlington recently, which would have been cheaper by train. What finally made us pick the plane from Heathrow to Durham Tees Valley was a combination of the ruddy awful NXEC online booking engine and it being unclear how much of the return journey down the ECML on a Sunday would be on a bus or diversion route (the quoted journey time was something like four hours). This is important when you have a tired five year old.

    I did check Grand Central. In fact, the cheapest train journey turned out to be GC to York then whoever turned up first to Darlington, but that took a lot of digging and was still 90-odd quid single with a change of trains. By that time she'd already booked the tickets on BMI. On time both ways, too.

  11. "Evidence? That would have made my pay rise this year 6% or 7%, surely?"

    Real GDP per head rose by 2-3% every year during the 2000s – i.e., the average person had inflation + 2-3% more income every year.

    The NXEC engine awful? Hush, man – the NXEC engine is *awesome* – unlike the Trainline-based sites, it shows very clearly the different sorts of ticket and the journeys you can take with each one.

    And not sure how you struggled on the bus qn on NXEC either – if you click the little "i" icon to the right of the journey in question, it tells you all the sub-journeys and their times (including all intermediate station stops and starts, if you check the "show all calling points" box), and what the facilities on the train are (including whether or not it's a bus).

    Finally – and this one is the railway's fault for not marketing it properly – if you pay gbp20 for a family railcard, then you(/your partner/any other hangers on) get 1/3 off the fares of all adults and all children travelling, up to about 4 of each. Which is pretty major on a trip like London to Darlington and back…

  12. John B,
    you're lucky if "in which case you worry" your employers refund work-related trips. Unbelievable. Privileged peopel really don't have a clue.

  13. why not have the John Band challenge:

    for every major city, take the north-south and east-west journey – Cockfosters – Caterham, Ealing-Brentwood – and say which one costs the most, takes the most time and involves the most changes of transport. I would be surprised if London comes out very well.

  14. just to say that because it is now Winter rather than Summer, my journey takes 20 minutes longer each way…theoretically, bacause it's colder, the electricity ought to go faster, shouldn't it?

  15. Tom, I agree. That pay rise above inflation stuff, I really don't know where he got it from. WHere he works maybe. John B sounds like a fairly lucky person to me. He gets a pay rise above inflation. His bosses pay for his train journeys. I mean, bloody hell mate… any vacancies at your work???

  16. Eh? What employers make you go 200 miles on a business trip and then don't refund it ("crooks" would be my answer of choice)? Obviously commuting's a different matter…

    On the "pay rise above inflation" point, while some commenters here might be out of luck, it's pretty clear from the data that in real life, this is what happened to most people on average during the period of economic growth between the mid-1990s and this summer. Again, I've admitted here and on Hagley Road that this year it won't be the case for many people (if anyone).

    d1960 – it's a pretty useless challenge since it depends on the size of the city, the geography of the city, and the layout of municipal administrative boundaries – which all vary massively.

    In New York you're on something like Tottenville on Staten Island to Crocheron Park in Queens, which will certainly take longer and cost more than any x-London journey and for which the MTA planner won't even quote a route nevermind a fare (60km, Google reckons 2h53 on public transport). In Amsterdam, it'd be more like Sloterdijk to Bijlmermeer (16km, 24 mins, EUR3).

    Since Brentwood and Caterham aren't in London your example's a bit odd – the longest journey I can think of that *is* is Northwood to Upminster (60km, 1h25, GBP3.50), which doesn't seem at all bad by comparison.

    Worth noting, though, that the price there is a bit flattered by the fact that the journey is all on London Underground (or on rail lines where LU tickets are valid). In general, London travel on single journeys on TfL services (ie LU, London Overground, trams, buses) is good value, London travel on single National Rail journeys tends towards expensive, and London travel on single journeys combining the two modes tends towards "sod it, I'll stay home".

  17. Anecdote alert: I recently did a rail trip across eastern/central Europe (where wages are low and so on) and it cost just over 5p/kilometre. The average speed was a staggering 58km/h.

    My last train trip with First Great Western cost just under 5p/kilometre, and the average speed was over 100km/h.

  18. A voodoo survey by an internet company? I used to do those, and they're not exactly National Statistics.

    The only sensible indicator of whether incomes are rising ahead of, or below, prices is whether or not there is real GDP per head growth. If there is, they're ahead; if there isn't, they're behind. Anything beyond that is irrelevant nonsense.

  19. Until 2006 I was employed by my local council. A job that most people would call 'safe' and 'privileged' as against the equivalent in the private sector.

    Our collective agreement entailed a 2% annual pay rise.

    John B, I don't think the annual inflation was 0%, or was it?

  20. That's the general trade-off of working in the public sector. You get lower pay rises in the good times, but are less likely to be laid off in the bad times.

  21. "The only sensible indicator of whether incomes are rising ahead of, or below, prices is whether or not there is real GDP per head growth "

    And the income distribution, surely?

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