What I learnt about UK rail fares

My blog posts from our Britain and Belgium trip continue, but it wouldn’t be one of my holidays if I didn’t geek out on transport-related stuff.

So here’s a post on the vagaries of rail fares in Britain… or at least, what you need to know as a tourist.

Buying rail tickets at home in Victoria is easy. For most trips you don’t even buy a separate ticket, you just use a Myki card for any trip in Melbourne and as far out as the “commuter belt” cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon, and local buses and trams are included in the price.

Further afield you book a ticket with V/Line. There are some exceptions: a fare on the XPT has to be bought from NSW Trainlink, though V/Line can sell you a ticket on Great Southern Rail’s Overland for a trip within Victoria. For most of the longer trips, there’s peak and off-peak, that’s it. First Class applies on some trips, as a simple surcharge on top of the regular fare.

Britain: a bigger, more complex network

As we found during our holiday, the UK has a lot more rail operators, and a lot more ticket types.

But then, it is a much more complex and extensive network. The UK rail system is made up of dozens of operators right across the country, branded collectively as National Rail, and using the old British Rail logo, first devised in 1965.

(Urban rail systems such as London Underground and others are separate, though there is some fare integration, as some of the National Rail services double as commuter/local lines within London and other cities.)

Salisbury station - next train to...

Shared infrastructure

The many operators share tracks in many cases, as well as stations – each station has a single operator managing it on behalf of the various operators serving it.

They also share a common ticketing system (with distinctive orange tickets with magnetic stripes), and fare gates, which are installed at most stations of any significant size. (If the Brits were running V/Line, they’d have fare gates installed at all the busiest regional stations.)

The fares are a bit confusing at first.

I studied the options, as I’d shelled out for not-very-cheap airfares. (Australian school holidays + European summer = A$2500 each Melbourne to London and return, and this is unintentionally turning into a big-spending year. So I was feeling pretty budget-conscious.)

Fare pricing is set by the individual operators, and initially it seems a bit like airline pricing, though in fact it’s not quite as complicated.

On routes run by multiple operators, the main one (“the lead operator“) sets the prices, which then applies to all other trains on the same route.

Night Riviera train at Paddington Station

Britrail passes

Overseas tourists visiting Britain can get Britrail passes, covering various areas or the whole country.

The passes are not cheap though, and I worked out that based on our plans, we wouldn’t save any money (and it might be more expensive) over buying individual tickets, provided most of our trips were off-peak.

Three types of tickets

The marvellous Seat61 website has a lot of detail, but it comes down to three basic types of fares:

Anytime – in other words, including peak times. Very expensive in some cases. Some commuter routes get so busy that they’ll charge through the nose to try and convince you to get other services. (Regular commuters tend to buy season tickets covering these trips.)

Off-peak – pretty self-explanatory. Flexible in terms of which train you can catch, provided it’s outside peak times. (Some operators have another tier called Super Off-peak, which is any train at specific times. As we found out, on some routes, this doesn’t automatically mean the trains aren’t busy.)

Advance – bought before the day of travel. Discounted, but inflexible, as you’re tied to a specific train (which also means a specific operator), and you can’t get a refund or even change it after you’ve booked. Not necessarily available for all trains – unlike the other types of fare, it’s up to the individual operator to decide how many tickets to make available, and at what price.

Some routes offer first class seating, for which you’ll obviously pay a higher fare. We didn’t opt for this. Standard Class was pretty good. The only exception was a couple of trains that were very crowded, but they were shorter trains that didn’t have first class seats anyway.

Example pricing from Taunton to Penzance:

  • Anytime single £70.50
  • Off-peak single £47.30
  • Open (off-peak) return £59.10
  • Advance single £19.50 to £31.70, depending on the train
  • First Class anytime single £163.00

For most journeys during our holiday, it made no sense to buy Advance tickets. In most cases we knew where we’d want to be going, and which day, but I didn’t want us to be tied to a specific train. That’s a path to a no-fun holiday, especially remembering that most trains on the lines we were using are every half-hour, or even more frequent. “No, we can’t catch that one. We have to sit here for another 30 minutes until our train comes.”

Packed train at Bath

The only exception, where booking in advance and reserving a spot was useful for us, was the sleeper train from Penzance to London – because we knew which night we were catching it, and there was only one train to choose from, and it guaranteed a berth.

(We also booked in advance for Eurostar, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, more like booking airline tickets.)

So, did avoiding Advance tickets mean we missed out on the cheapest fares? Actually, mostly not. Because we were travelling always in a group of four, and almost all our trips were on Great Western Railway, we were able to make use of GWR’s GroupSave discount… not all operators have it, but on those that do, for groups of 3-9 people, it reduces prices by a third, bringing normal Off-Peak fares down to about the same price as Advance fares.

Train ticket from Cardiff to Bath, and a water bottle from home

Single vs Return

Return tickets (including “open return”, where you come back on a different day) are usually only a bit more expensive than a single fare. The return trip isn’t tied to a specific train, though it may exclude peak times.

For our trip it was almost all single fares, but it’s useful if you’re doing some backtracking.

Multi-operator trips

While all train operators sell tickets for all the other operators, and they share ticketing infrastructure so that for instance all tickets work in all fare gates, the fares themselves are often not integrated.

If your journey includes two “lead” operators, it appears you’ll pay the cost of the two individual legs, simply added together. This makes it more expensive than if both legs were on one operator. As with local buses, I would expect this is a disincentive to use the trains for some trips.

Speaking of buses, there is some fare integration, with a scheme called PlusBus which gets you a discounted local bus pass with your train ticket. For trips to London you can also get a discounted London Travelcard. Both of these only apply on the same day as your train trip.

Trains at Paddington Station

How to buy

Buying fares online is possible, and you can then collect the tickets at a vending machine – a good option for tourists. One limitation of this is won’t let you buy online less than an hour before the train is due.

All the train operator web sites will sell you a ticket, including for any other operator. There are other web sites that have extra smarts for looking for cheap deals, but some of them also add small surcharges.

You can also buy tickets at the vending machines of course. A downside of this is that most of the machines can’t handle the GroupSave deal.

So in most cases I ended up buying tickets just before travel, from the booking office – which is something you’d think they’d want to discourage, but for us it was the easiest way. (To be fair, they’re upgrading the vending machines to handle GroupSave.)

To their credit, the operators of the stations involved always seemed to have plenty of staff in the booking offices. I never waited more than a couple of minutes, and the people on duty were all very helpful – and knew about the GroupSave discount, even at Cardiff Station which is run by a different Train Operating Company (Arriva) than the one we were booking for (GWR), though Arriva have a similar deal with a different name (Small Group Day Ticket).

One side effect of GroupSave only being valid on certain operators: in some cases you can only catch a train run by that operator. We did a trip from Bath to Taunton (via Bristol Temple Meads). The discount was only valid on GWR trains, not other trains on that route run by CrossCountry.

Salisbury station

A to B, B to C

Still reading? Okay. Finally, here’s a neat moneysaver.

Seat61 notes that in some cases it’s cheaper to buy two tickets for a single trip. It’s a quirk of the pricing system.

In most cases I didn’t look into this option, but I did check for one trip from Taunton to Penzance, which involved changing trains along the way at either Par or Exeter St David’s. It turned out to be quite a bit cheaper to buy separate tickets for each leg of the trip.

This we did by exiting the station at Exeter, buying fresh tickets and then going back in again. But if you have bought the tickets in advance, there’s no need to even do that. In fact you don’t even need to hop off the train; you just need to be on a train that stops at the relevant station.

Apart from buying the second lot of tickets, we were also able to use the 20ish minutes at Exeter to buy some lunch, though we didn’t venture out of the station as it was pouring with rain at the time.

How much did we save?

  • Taunton to Penzance is £31.20 each, if you include the GroupSave discount (change at Par or Exeter St David’s. Some combinations of trains were up to £47.30 each)
  • Taunton to Exeter St David’s £7.75 each + Exeter St David’s to Penzance £13.85 each = total £21.60 (includes the GroupSave discount)

So in our case, booking the full trip for the four of us would have been £124.80 total including GroupSave. Buying it in two parts ended up costing us £86.40 total. A saving of £38.40, or about A$62, about 30% of the fare. And we got to step outside the station gates and buy sandwiches, which I believe we technically couldn’t have done if making the trip on one ticket.

Worth our while.

Cardiff station sign

Would we want this complexity here?

You can see some advantages to the British way of doing things. Cheap advance discount fares encourages patronage and gives the operators some certainty over who will turn up. GroupSave and other discount schemes make it more affordable for groups to use public transport.

But it is quite complicated for passengers to understand. And return tickets only being slightly more expensive than singles, well that’s a bit odd given it costs a rail company twice as much to carry you on two trips.

And UK pricing is completely illogical in some cases — in part thanks to the myriad of operators all applying their own commercial decisions to their pricing.

We’ve got our quirks too of course, but the key is keeping it simple for passengers, and ensuring that there’s a good return to operators (and government) as extra services are added, to encourage further investment.

Crossing the street in Cardiff is an exercise in frustration

I wanted to reflect on something from our recent visit to Cardiff.

Some of central Cardiff is pedestrianised, which is great. Many other areas have nice wide footpaths.

It would be near-perfect for walking… if at most intersections the traffic lights weren’t designed to be so pedestrian hostile.

It’s as if the traffic engineers either hate pedestrians, or have done everything they can to theoretically prevent car and pedestrian accidents.

But in the process they’ve created an environment where people have to wait for so long to cross the street that jaywalking is widespread.

Cardiff staggered pedestrian crossing

Beg button x 2

What’s the only thing worse than waiting for a traffic light to cross the street? Waiting for two traffic lights to cross the street!

In Cardiff, many intersections have traffic islands, and the pedestrian crossings have all been designed to be staggered, with the lights programmed to give a green man at different times.

Rule 28 of the UK Highway Code says:

When the crossings on each side of the central refuge are not in line they are two separate crossings. On reaching the central island, press the button again and wait for a steady green figure.

The proliferation of this design in Cardiff means that at most spots as you cross the street, provided you obey the green/red man, you have to wait twice, and the way these are implemented, the wait is often for an extended period of time — even when there’s no traffic coming.

I suspect it’s used to minimise accidents caused by inattentive drivers:

  • For instance at a three-way (T) junction, you might have a three part cycle with each road having equal green time.
  • Then you fit the pedestrian cycles around it: on any one of the three roads, two-thirds of the time, people can cross in front of the stopped cars.
  • Only when those cars get a green can you cross the rest of that road. So you’ll never make it across the entire road in one go.

They’ve set up similar programming at many four way intersections.

Yes, it theoretically cuts vehicle conflicts with other vehicles and pedestrians, and probably maximises vehicle throughput where there are a lot of turning vehicles.

But should that be the top priority in a dense city centre?


Pic from Google Streetview — On the main road from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay. The pedestrian light nearest the camera is red; the other one is green.

This setup is beyond irritating when you’re trying to walk around. Often there will be a long wait for two separate green men despite there being little or no traffic.

It’s a very poor experience for pedestrians, and does nothing to encourage walking.

Thankfully such a design is rare in Australia. The only time you’re unlikely to get all the way across a divided road is if you’re not a fast walker, and you’re at a very wide road, perhaps 4+ lanes each way plus a wide median.

Traffic light design

Apart from how they’re programmed, some of the traffic lights have their green man display not on the opposite side where it’s easily seen, but on a display next to the button.

This is quite low down and can be difficult to view when other people are waiting.

Cardiff pedestrian signal mounted on pole

It’s also completely counter-intuitive to watch for a light that’s off to your side, rather than in the direction you’re wanting to go.

Combined with many traffic lights not having audible prompts (near-universal in Australia), this leads to people not even noticing when the traffic light eventually allows them to go.

Not all the crossings in Cardiff had this design. It’s not clear to me whether this is the new standard, or one of several standards, depending on context. We saw them elsewhere in Britain, though I don’t recall seeing any in London.

(See an example, with an additional indicator further up the pole, outside Cardiff Castle.)

Outcomes?

In this kind of walking environment, it quickly became apparent that many of the locals jaywalk regularly – and I can’t say I blame them. It was positively painful walking around and obeying all the traffic lights.

Widespread jaywalking means that the safety benefit (if indeed that was the motivation for these designs) is completely undermined.

I saw similar issues elsewhere in the UK, but to nowhere near the degree they’ve done this in Cardiff.

I don’t know the history of this, and whether there have been objections from the locals – I searched online a bit, didn’t find anything.

It’s unlikely it would ever happen, but if I ever end up living and working in Cardiff, I think I’ve found my first advocacy campaign.

Cardiff is a lovely city. But it treats its pedestrians with contempt.

New timetables on 27th August, as Southland Station nears completion

New public transport timetables kick in on August 27th. Last week (or maybe it was the week before), PTV released details, including full timetables for the routes affected:

Altona Loop users rejoice! (A bit)

There will be no more Altona Loop shuttles. Weekday Altona Loop services will run through to Flinders St.

This also means Werribee trains will run express Newport-Footscray-North Melbourne, so both Altona and Werribee people win from this.

Of course the mostly single track through Altona means bypasses are set to continue. At least we now know the Kororoit Creek Road grade separation will include some duplication. Hopefully that makes a difference.

There hasn’t been a wholesale re-write of the timetable, so peak Williamstown and Altona services remain at every 22 minutes, while off-peak is 20!

V/Line V/Locity train on viaduct between Flinders Street and Southern Cross

More Geelong trains

The Geelong line will go to every 40 minutes on weekends. With constant overcrowding on the current hourly trains, this was only a matter of time, though heaven knows why they didn’t push the upgrades a little further to half-hourly, which would have meant more trains, a clockface timetable (40’s alternating hours has always been problematic) and preserving the bus connections, many of which are every 30-60 minutes.

As it is, bus connections will break. The premier Geelong bus service, route 1 from North Shore to Deakin, is every 30 minutes on weekends, and will remain so. It doesn’t take a genius to see that buses every 30 minutes don’t interface well with trains every 40 minutes.

V/Line have said in response to queries that it’s because the Sunbury line is every 20-40 minutes on weekends, and the Bendigo line is tied in with that, because they share some tracks… and the Bendigo line in turn interfaces with the Ballarat and Geelong lines. V/Line claims this prevents the Geelong line going to every 30 minutes.

But then, this is the organisation that has three out of four hourly services currently meeting at Deer Park Junction within a few minutes of each other, so I don’t think it’s unfair to say that their timetabling leaves something to be desired.

So has that been fixed? Well, yes and no:

  • Ballarat line at Deer Park, inbound: 15 past the hour. Outbound: 34
  • Geelong line at Deer Park, inbound: 12 and 52, or 32. Outbound: 07 and 47, or 27

So if the inbound Geelong train is 3 minutes late, every second hour it’ll delay an inbound Ballarat train. If it’s even later, it’ll delay an outbound Ballarat train as well, thanks to the flat junction.

You’d think they could have figured out better spacing between the Geelong and Ballarat trains. Aside from junction conflicts, Deer Park passengers will have 2-3 trains per hour: either at 12, 15, 52 past the hour, or at 15 and 32. Hmmmmm.

It remains to be seen whether V/Line continues to run their daily game of Mystery Platforms at Southern Cross.


Southland

The August 27th timetable for the Frankston line already includes Southland times:

Frankston line timetable showing Southland times

For those wondering about stopping patterns, the full timetable shows peak expresses will still run to/from Cheltenham, not stopping at Southland.

On Sunday afternoon I went and had a quick look at the station. It’s looking good. These views from the top of the shopping centre carpark.

The platforms are looking close to complete. Even some signage is now up.
Southland Station under construction

View looking towards the City. I’m guessing the structure closest the camera is the PSO pod and/or toilets. There seems to be plenty of coverage on the citybound platform; less so on the outbound platform.
Southland Station under construction

View looking towards Frankston. The southern ends of the platforms (as well as the entire citybound platform) are adjacent to houses, but it appears you won’t be able to see much from the platform. A few better view from the top of the Southland carpark :-/
Southland Station under construction

It’s good to see the pedestrian route through the carpark has been modified recently; it now heads more-or-less directly to the station entrance.
Southland Station - shopping centre car park

I’m not sure you’d say the station looks beautiful. I guess we’ll see what it looks like when it opens.

The station may look close to completion, but that is not to say that it is opening imminently. While the structure looks more and more functional every week, I’m hearing November is the likely opening date, with electrical and signalling works still underway.

I suppose until the station actually opens, the extra minute or two allowed in the timetables will be one less excuse Metro has for train delays.

It’ll be good to finally have it open – hopefully in time for the Christmas shopping rush.

Other timetable changes

Other changes on August 27th include additional trains on a number of lines: Werribee, Craigieburn (with all peak trains now via the Loop), Sunbury (some peak trains direct via Southern Cross), and some trains extended to Eltham.

There are also more V/Line services to Shepparton, Traralgon (approaching hourly on weekends, but not quite there yet), Bendigo, and Ballarat/Ararat. A number of local buses, both in metropolitan Melbourne and around Victoria, also have timetable changes.

All in all, some good upgrades. Enough? No, of course not – missing in action is any hint of a rollout of PTV’s 10 minute suburban train plan – but this is a step forward.

Good to see smoking bans have been extended

A short break from posting my holiday blogs

From today, smoking bans have been extended to include the entrances to most government buildings, as well as outdoor dining areas.

This is all good. We’re way behind the other states on this. It’s about time non-smokers, who make up the vast majority of the population, had the right to more smoke-free places, including while eating.

The changes also mean e-cigarettes are included in smoking bans.

This is also welcome. Until now, as I understand it, e-cigarettes were not actually banned on and around public transport.

Vapers like to claim it’s harmless. I’m not sure I believe that, but regardless, I still don’t want the fumes in my face.

Smokers

Until 2014, smoking was still permitted in some parts of railway stations, and around tram and bus shelters.

It was only in 2007 that smoking was banned in pubs. It seems outlandish now, but as late as 2001, you could smoke in restaurants.

At one office job I worked at in 1998, people still smoked in the courtyard entrance, and I was told it had only been a couple of years earlier that smoking had been banned inside the office.

To coin a phrase, smokers are a dying breed. In 2015 it was down to 11.9% of Victorians, and hopefully it’ll continue to drop as it’s banned in more places.

Smoke blows around easily, and sometimes it’s difficult to walk along city streets without breathing it in. So I hope the bans will continue to spread. It’s good to see progress.

Adults may have the right to smoke, but increasingly they can’t inflict it on others. And that’s a good thing.

Congestion is not the enemy

This in the Herald Sun a few weeks ago: Melbourne traffic congestion on par with world’s biggest cities like London, Rome and New York (paywall):

TRAFFIC congestion in Melbourne is on par with New York and could rival the world’s worst cities if nothing is done to combat the problem.

Figures supplied by Tom Tom show congestion levels in Melbourne are at 33 per cent compared to its population.

This means motorists are sitting in peak hour congestion a third longer than if the traffic was free-flowing.

And then this in The Age: Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city’s north-east has worst traffic:

The Grattan Institute research is based on an analysis of Google map data for more than 300 routes in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. It was collected 25 times a day over 12 weeks between March and June 2017 and found:

An average morning commute to the Melbourne CBD by car takes almost 70 per cent longer than in the middle of the night.

These are based on very similar surveys: the Herald Sun used the much-criticised Tom Tom congestion survey. The Age used a Grattan Institute survey.

Both use the same flawed methodology. They compare a city’s traffic speed at quiet times with the traffic speed at peak hour.

Apart from assuming that getting around by car as fast as possible is automatically the most important thing, you get wacky conclusions because a city with 24/7 congestion (only slightly worse at peak hour) is deemed to be less congested than a city where most of the time there’s free-flowing traffic but for a couple of hours a day it’s proportionately worse.

(The Grattan Institute says there’s more coming. I hope it’s more well thought out than just looking at motor vehicle commuting.)

In any case, if this is our big conclusion that drives transport policy, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

The debate shouldn’t be about congestion

I don’t think the debate should be about congestion. It shouldn’t even be about mobility. It should be about access to opportunity: jobs, education, amenity.

It’s not about whether people who choose to drive* are delayed by others who choose to drive. It’s about whether everybody (including those who don’t drive) can get to the places they need to get to.

*Or are forced to do so for lack of viable alternatives.

(To contradict myself for a moment: congestion that gets in the way of efficient transport modes absolutely is the enemy. Ways need to be found to get pedestrians, bikes, trams, buses and trains around it, or at least through it quickly.)

One of the major benefits of a big city, if there are lots of opportunities well-serviced by public transport (and walking and cycling), is that it makes it easier for everyone, of every age, and every income level, to access them… provided they don’t insist on bringing their 2 tonne private vehicle, of course.

Bourke Street Mall, lunchtime

What sort of city do we want?

There’s also a lesson in the headlines. In the Herald Sun story, New York, London and Rome are cited, and compared to Melbourne. In other words, the most prosperous, vibrant, successful cities on Earth have congestion. And we’re becoming more like them.

Is that actually a bad thing?

As Samuel Schwartz says in his excellent book which I just finished reading:

…a study from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found a powerful correlation between per capita traffic delay and per capita GDP; and the correlation wasn’t negative, but the opposite. For every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, the study found a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. It’s not that congestion itself increases economic productivity, but that places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.

Should we really be trying to stamp out congestion, or should we look at how other cities deal with it?

The big world cities don’t deal with congestion by eliminating it – which basically isn’t possible; building more roads just grows more traffic.

Rather, they provide lots of ways of avoiding traffic congestion, by making sure more people can get around without driving in it and adding to it: by providing viable non-car modes for most trips, including non-work, non-CBD trips.

Decentralisation and liveability

Meanwhile, the state Coalition is calling for more decentralisation to maintain Melbourne’s liveability. By “liveability” I suspect they actually mean crowding and congestion.

Again, look around the world at the cities we might aspire to be.

What makes Melbourne’s congested city centre successful in this age of the Information Economy is lots of people in a relatively small space. The majority, who come in by train, are simply never affected by traffic congestion. (They are affected by rail disruptions such as last week’s major outage, but that’s not an everyday thing.)

Decentralisation plays against one of our key strengths.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t increase the number of viable business districts, if it’s possible.

But just moving lots of people to car-dominated regional towns doesn’t really help. As Alan Davies notes, decentralisation is just another name for regional sprawl. And replacing urban sprawl with regional sprawl isn’t actually a positive.

Okay I’ve rambled a bit again.

But my key point is: congestion isn’t our enemy. Lack, and inequity of access is what we should be talking about, and seeking to fix.