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.

There are also various other passes available to locals and visitors alike.

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 catch 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.

Which is cheapest?

If you buy daily tickets (currently available as Metcard only), the per weekday cost is Zone 1 $6.80, Zone 2 $4.80, Zone 1+2 $10.60.

Obviously there’s no reason to do this on a regular basis, since you can save a substantial amount of money by using the bulk fare options.

But which one?

That is, if you usually travel by PT every weekday, but not usually on weekends, and occasionally take the day off (as well as public holidays) what’s the cheapest way to do it? 10×2 hour (or Myki Money), or Monthly/Yearly (or Myki Pass)?

Metcards

Pay 5 days at a time

Using a 10×2 hour Metcard (or Myki Money), the per weekday day cost is: Z1 $5.88, Z2 $4.04, Z1+2 $9.92.

Obviously a key advantage here is that unlike the other bulk options, they don’t have to be consecutive days, so if you travel only semi-regularly, these tickets are a good option.

(The 5xDaily fares are the identical cost, but there’s no reason to ever buy these tickets, because the 10×2 hour tickets provide the same amount of travel, but are more flexible if you ever need only one 2-hour period of travel.)

Pay by the week

The cost is also the same as above if you get a Weekly Metcard or 7-day Myki pass, and only use it for the weekdays (eg 5 days). But you get any weekend days you might travel as a bonus, so if you regularly catch weekend PT, it’s cheaper to be on a weekly. (Note: Myki will not upgrade you to a weekly fare if that’s what’s cheaper.)

However if you absolutely never use PT on a weekend, and there is a public holiday in the week, this option turns out more expensive — indeed it’s more expensive than buying individual tickets — eg four days on a Weekly would cost you $7.35 per day for zone 1.

Pay by the month(ish)

March had 22 weekdays (23 less Labour Day). Due to Easter and ANZAC Day, April only has 19. Let’s assume the average month has 21.

On a Monthly Metcard, the per weekday cost is (approxiamately) Z1 $5.22, Z2 $3.50, Z1+2 $8.05.

And it’s still cheaper than the 10×2 cost, even for April. You’d have to get down to 18 working days (with no weekend travel whatsoever) for it to be more expensive on the Monthly. (Z1+2 is discounted more; you’d have to get down to 17 working days). Plus you don’t have to buy a new ticket every week(ish).

Myki’s five week option

With Myki the per day rate is published on their web site, because you can buy any number of days from 28 to 365 (anything above 325 is free). If you assume no weekend travel, then the per day cost to the user obviously goes up, since you’re paying for weekends but not using them.

But here’s something that someone cleverer than me noticed: if you buy 33 days, and start it on a Monday, thus ending on a Friday 5 weeks later, you can avoid paying for one weekend you don’t need. (Even if you do need to travel on that weekend, with Myki Money it’s a maximum of $3 per weekend day, so that travel is cheaper than it would have been on the pass).

If it’s in a 5-week period with one day off in that time, the cost per weekday comes out at Z1 $4.95, Z2 $3.30, Z1+2 $7.65, and you get travel in your zone(s) on four weekends included.

And because the per-day cost is slightly lower than the Monthly Metcard price, it’s cheaper than the Myki Money rate unless you travel only 18 days or less in that 5-week period (17 for Z1+2).

The catch is that if you use a Myki card that has an unused Pass on it, the system will start using it, so you need to be careful to buy and use the Pass when you want to, not start it too early by accident, unlike Metcard, where you can buy your ticket in advance and choose not to use it until you’re ready.

Pay by the year

If you want to pay for your travel a year in advance, there’s no need to pay the retail prices. If you work for a large organisation, ask them if they offer Commuter Club; if you don’t, get it through PTUA Commuter Club. You’ll save 9-10% that way.

Let’s assume you don’t work the whole year. Let’s say you take 4 weeks off, as well as public holidays (this year there are 10 on weekdays), plus say 5 extra days of leave (eg sick leave or additional leave) making about 225 days per year.

The cost per weekday then comes out at Z1 $4.84, Z2 $3.28, Z1+2 $7.40, with of course any travel on weekends or during your leave period included as well. Obviously the more you travel, the less per day it costs.

(The equivalent pass in Myki is only available at the full retail price at moment, so there’s no reason to use it, as you’d be wasting money. The exception is if you’re eligible for a concession fare, as Metcard Yearly is not available at the concession rate.)

Confused?

Don’t be. The usual rule for bulk buying applies: the more you pay in advance, the more money you’ll save over the long run. Whether you can afford it and whether that’s the best use of your money is another question.

Here’s a graph which may make it a tad clearer. To be clear, these figures make the assumptions given above.

Fare options: cost per day

I suspect for most people, the monthly(ish) ticket is the sweet spot, giving a 12-18% discount from the 10×2/Myki Money price, though for those who regularly use PT on weekends and when they’re on holiday, the discounted Yearly option may be quite compelling.

And remember, for monthly and longer options, you can apply for compensation when the operators miss their performance targets. Those who are eligible for train compensation for March, for instance, get two extra days of travel.

How could things be better?

With the cost of casual weekend travel dropping to $3, it would make sense for the government to bring down the price of Weekly/Monthly/Yearly tickets to make up for that. The more compelling they can make Monthlies and Yearlies in particular, the better, as promoting that kind of bulk pre-payment reduces the number of transactions that need to be made (reducing costs) and encourages loyal customers onto PT.

Price references: Metcard fares. Myki fares. PTUA Commuter Club Yearly.

Note: Myki is still only valid on trains, so if your regular travel involves trams or buses, ignore those options. Even if you only catch trains, be very wary of Myki at present — it’s still got problems.

(Have I messed up any of my calculations? Leave a comment if you spot any errors.)

The Metcard mess, and what Metlink does

I was going to write a blog post about yesterday’s Metcard kerfuffle, in particular pointing out that despite my initial speculation, the Transport Act only requires passengers to make a reasonable attempt to buy and validate your ticket.

It doesn’t require you to buy another ticket if yours doesn’t work, carry spare change, plead with passengers for change, and finally get off the tram if no alternative is available. That appears to be bad advice given to both the Authorised Officers (inspectors) and Metlink staff in this case. It is well beyond what is “reasonable”. It’s also illogical; nobody would have the expectation that, having bought the ticket and tried it unsuccessfully in two validators, they might get fined.

In the case of this punter, it appears his ticket may have been faulty, and was taken away for investigation, and he was told twice, separately, completely the wrong thing about what he should have done to avoid a fine. Messy.

What Metlink does

Rather than rant some more about that case, instead I’m just going to point this out this little factoid which often escapes peoples attention:

Metlink is a marketing body. It provides information. That’s all they do.

It doesn’t run services. It doesn’t plan timetables*. It doesn’t manage Authorised Officers. It doesn’t issue fines. It doesn’t review or revoke fines. It doesn’t run the ticketing system. It doesn’t handle complaints against operators.

You could be forgiven for thinking they do more — the arrangements are quite confusing. In this case alone, you’ve got Yarra Trams (who run the service and employ the Authorised Officers), the state government (who authorise the Authorised Officers, write the legislation they act under, and review the Reports Of Non-Compliance that the AOs write, and decide if they’ll result in fines), OneLink (who operates the Metcard system), Metlink (to whom the passenger made enquiries about it).

I wish I could explain all this with a diagram, but I don’t have the time to draw one up. Instead, here’s an official (though obscure) diagram of how the trains are managed. (And this one is more about operations and maintenance, so it excludes most of the other bodies above.)

Connex Franchise structure

No wonder people are confused, and why some are calling for reform of how PT is managed.

*Actually, it appears that nobody co-ordinates timetables across modes, which is why trams and buses and trains connect so badly. Well, apart from a handful of bus/train and bus/tram connections that are so rare they have a special name.

Ticketing rules you may not know about

Southern Cross StationI have a vague feeling I might have posted something like this in the past, but I can’t find it, so here it is again.

For those of you who don’t read the Victorian Fares and Ticketing Manual for fun, here are some rules about Metcard ticketing that you may not know about. These rules are not expected to change when Myki is introduced. (Edit: Weeklies may change.)

Expiry times

Everyone knows two-hour tickets are rounded up to the next hour [p13]. But if you validate a two-hour ticket right on the hour, it’s valid for three hours.

Validate at or after 6pm and it’s valid until 3am. [p13]

The expiry time means you have to have commenced your trip, eg entered the station paid area, or boarded the tram or bus. [p13]

(It’s unclear what happens if you need to change trains and leave the paid area to do so, as is necessary at some locations.)

If your service was due to depart before the expiry time, but is later than that, or is cancelled, you can still use the ticket for that trip. [p13, p95] Update: This clause is removed under Myki.

The end of the day in ticketing terms is 3am. If you validate a ticket between midnight and 3am, it counts as the day before (eg a Daily will be valid only until 3am.) [p13-14]

This means that a Weekly (etc) ticket that says it’s valid until Wednesday is actually valid until 3am on Thursday morning.

City Saver tickets are only valid for a single trip. This means you can swap trains within the City Saver area, as long as you don’t leave the fare paid zone, but you can’t swap trams or buses. With all other tickets you can swap as much as you like before the expiry time. [p16]

Zones

On weekends, a weekly, monthly, yearly ticket is valid in both metropolitan zones. [p15] (At one stage this benefit was to be abolished but they changed their minds.) Update: This benefit is removed under Myki.

If you use a weekly, monthly or yearly and need an extra zone (eg on weekdays), you can just buy the extra “extension” ticket, if necessary at your destination. If you’re on a two-hour or daily ticket you’re meant to have one ticket covering your entire trip.[p94]

Discounts

A 10 x 2 hour ticket is about a 20% discount from the price of buying individual tickets.[p9]

10 x 2 hour tickets convert into a Daily if you validate the same ticket for a second two-hour block in one day. This effectively makes the 5 x Daily tickets redundant, as they are less flexible.[p13]

If you live in zone 2, you can buy a zone 1+2 off-peak daily for slightly less than a “normal” daily (about the same discount as a 10 x 2 hour), but only from railway stations, and you can only use it after 9am.

For weekends, a Sunday Saver (currently $3.10) or a 5 x Weekend Daily ($15.00) is a good deal.

What did I miss? What did I mess up?

PS. A little radio this morning: ABC AM: New Melbourne tram stops pull up short