Sometimes it’s easy to be cynical. Progress in public transport can be slow.
But there is some progress.
I found this from May 2007 — it was an email from me to a local politician who had asked about public transport issues in the southern suburbs of Melbourne.
I’ll intersperse my original points with some comments about progress in the past ten years. This focuses mostly on the Frankston line, but much is applicable to others.
Frankston line – while the Dandenong line has been earmarked for extra services, the Frankston line is also very crowded during peak hours, to the extent that passengers regularly can’t board trains. This is in part because some stations only get trains every 15 minutes (eg Glenhuntly, Ormond, McKinnon) even in peak hours.
Progress! There was a shake-up of the peak-hour timetable in 2014. Frankston line trains are mostly every 8-10 minutes now in peak, with a two-tier service so the load is spread between stopping and express trains.
In 2007, there were 16 trains into Richmond from the Frankston line between 7:01am and 9am. Now I count 21.
Other lines still need upgrades. The Ringwood line had an AM peak revamp, but PM peak is still a mess of different stopping patterns, which is confusing, and limits capacity.
Network-wide load standard breaches in 2009 numbered 54 (“above benchmark”) in the AM peak, and 48 in the PM peak.
By 2017, these had reduced to 17 and 7 respectively, helped by additional services, as well as modifications to carriages to provide more standing room (aka fewer seats) which led to the benchmark changing from 798 per train to 900. Cheating? Perhaps, but reflects a shift: it’s more important to just fit onto the train than for a few more people to get a seat.
Thanks to patronage growth, particularly residential growth around stations, there is still crowding at peak times, to the point where (to my eye) it is causing load breaches. And of course reliability is an issue — a cancellation causes widespread chaos.
Peak shoulder and inter-peak
Additionally, trains fall back to half-hourly after 7pm, which increases pressure on peak hour services, as people don’t want to wait half an hour for a train. Running frequent services (including expresses) for longer would allow more people to travel outside peak hours, and would not require any extra trains or infrastructure.
Progress! The last Frankston express train used to be at 6pm; they now run until about 6:40pm.
Where there used to be just two trains per hour after 7pm (departures from Flinders Street: 7:15, 7:45, then every half-hour), the Frankston line now has 5 departures out of the city between 7pm-8pm, then every 20 minutes until 10pm.
Some other lines have also improved, though the busy Sunbury and Craigieburn lines drop back to every 20 minutes at 6:30pm, then back to half-hourly at 8pm.
Between the peaks (during the day) things have improved on some lines. Trains between the peaks have run every 10 minutes all day on the Frankston line since 2011, with the Dandenong line following in 2014.
Other lines still need upgrades. Many are still only every 20 minutes during the day.
Evenings and weekends
Upgrades to evening and weekend services would also encourage more people to travel by train. At the very least, long trains should be used (overcrowding regularly occurs in evenings and weekends on the Frankston line and others), but more frequent services should also be provided.
Back then, most evening and weekend trains (when no football/cricket was on) ran as 3-cars.
Nowadays almost all services on all lines (except suburban shuttles) now run as 6-car trains, so the ridiculous situation of lots of people squeezing onto a short train rarely happens.
Evening frequencies: Many lines now run every 15-20 minutes until about 10pm, though on some it’s been implemented in a very hamfisted way. For instance Ringwood has the half-hourly service with 6-car trains, doing their old confusing Belgrave/Lilydale alternate through-train/shuttle arrangement, interspersed with extra 3-car trains to Ringwood. The timetable needs a complete re-write.
On weekends, trains out to Frankston, Ringwood and Dandenong have run every 10 minutes since 2012, doubling the previous daytime frequency. Most other lines still only get trains every 20 minutes.
After 8pm on weekends is pretty similar to how it was before; mostly half-hourly until midnight.
Southland Station – this reached pre-feasibility stage in late 2004, and there has been no word on it progressing since then. Southland is a major activity centre, and serving it by rail should be a no-brainer.
Southland station busy with shoppers👍. Up to two-thirds of people not spotting official path, or choosing not to use it. Really needs to be better signed and more direct. (Hint: nobody calls it "Westfield".) pic.twitter.com/N96od8fZpc
Many bus routes need upgrading, to provide better feeder services into stations (thus relieving overcrowded station carparks) as well as being more time-competitive for other trips. For instance, route 623 serves major destinations such as St Kilda Beach and Chadstone, but does not run on Sundays, is only hourly on Saturdays, and finishes by 6pm on weekdays.
Some small progress. In the late part of last decade, as part of the MOTC plan, many routes got Sunday and evening services added.
But frequencies haven’t improved. Most routes are still just half-hourly on weekdays, hourly on weekends and evenings. Not going to cut it for most people.
While upgrades to level crossings have helped safety, the government should be looking at elimination of crossings, such as the one removed at Middleborough Road, Laburnham earlier this year. Removing crossings can help train reliability, aid pedestrian amenity and safety, and help buses and trams by reducing traffic congestion. A prime candidate would be Glenhuntly Station, where both trains and trams have to cross very slowly, causing delays.
The question is: are these upgrades enough? Is the transport system keeping up? And is the rest of Melbourne getting what it needs?
Probably not. Many points of the rail network, and the greater public transport network, are under stress from crowding, and it’s not all at peak hour. The fast-growing western suburbs need particular attention.
All of Melbourne’s suburban railway stations have step-free access to the platforms.
Except one: Heyington. To get to either platform involves steps.
Heyington is set into the side of a hill. From the street you go down some steps to the citybound (“up”) platform. Or if you want the outbound (“down”) platform, that’s down some steps, across a walkway, and then down some more steps. (The outbound platform is accessible directly from the adjacent St Kevins College, but that appears to be a private entrance.)
Other rail networks
So, every Melbourne station except one has step-free access.
That’s a long way ahead of many of the bigger old rail systems around the world.
It’s not that hard to see how this happened. Much of Sydney is very hilly, so many stations hug the side of hills (like Heyington does), which would have made it quite difficult/expensive to provide ramps, back in the days when accessibility for wheelchairs or prams wasn’t seen as a concern.
(For similar reasons, Sydney never had very many level crossings. Sure, they’ve done a good job at getting rid of theirs, but they never had that many to start with. Melbourne in comparison is fairly flat, so we ended up with lots of level crossings.)
On old underground systems like London and Paris, some of the stations were built before lift/elevator technology had really matured, and it would have been expensive, and not seen as a priority. Providing ramps to station platforms deep underground would have cost a fortune, so to this day they’re very reliant on steps. Some cities are spending up big on retro-fitting lifts.
How did Melbourne end up with ramps almost everywhere? There must have been a policy in place, because stations going back well over a hundred years have them — the MATHS stations rebuilt in the 1910s are a good example, but you can also find photos of Flinders Street Station from the 1890s with ramps.
Whatever the reasons for the policy, it showed foresight.
DDA compliance doesn’t just mean ramps
So, all Melbourne stations except Heyington are step-free. But this doesn’t make them compliant with the latest legislated standards.
The Disability Discrimination Act, and the subsection, the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport are far more specific than just “no steps”. Melbourne’s station ramps, particularly the older ones, are too steep for some people in a hand-operated wheelchair to use, and can cause problems for people with other mobility difficulties.
Here’s a summary of the relevant DDA standard (AS 1428.1):
So basically you need ramps to be no steeper than 1:14, and at that gradient, you need a landing every 9 metres.
DDA probably isn’t perfect. But it mandates a pretty good standard, which if followed, makes more public spaces accessible to most people, not just the able-bodied.
Some upgrades coming
The current state of many of the stations means, even though there are no steps, it’s difficult for some people to use them.
If you have specific mobility needs and you’re looking to travel — for instance, you might be capable of using modern DDA-compliant ramps, but not the older steeper ones — there’s not very much official information online.
In fact it cheerfully notes stations that have steps, without telling you what this means:
Heyington has steps which means you can’t access the platforms any other way.
Box Hill and Ormond are also listed as having steps… but platforms are accessible via lifts and/or ramps.
It mentions if station parking, phones and toilets are accessible, but again, doesn’t clarify what this means. Accessible from where? Caulfield’s new accessible toilets are on platforms 2/3, reached from the street via two steep ramps.
Worse, it claims Heyington’s toilets and phone are accessible — I didn’t notice a telephone, and there are certainly no toilets available there.
The PTV Journey Planner can be told:
You can’t walk very far
You need services and/or stops with wheelchair access
(The Journey Planner seems to know which trams are accessible and which aren’t — eg 96 normally is, 57 normally isn’t. Just don’t bother trying to look at the tram timetables online, which don’t show it.)
But you can’t specify that you need:
Unassisted/DDA-compliant wheelchair access
Visual displays on the platform (eg hearing difficulties) to confirm you’re boarding the right service
Tactile guidance paths (even though these are in the PTV database)
(I’m not trying to catalogue every specific need people might have, just show some examples.)
In this (lengthy) post I’ve looked at the many types of rail transport in Belgium, and I try and ponder lessons for Melbourne.
Belgian use of rail ranges from trams — street-based and on separate alignments as in Melbourne, but also underground “pre-metro” routes — the Metro, and suburban and long-distance heavy rail.
Brussels has quite a large tram network – apparently 16th largest in the world. Similar to Melbourne, the trams arrived in the late 1800s.
Some tram routes, particularly in the central city, run along the street, either in their own lanes, or in mixed traffic – pretty similar to all Melbourne tram routes.
Perhaps those in mixed traffic are the older routes, developed before motor cars were much of a problem – but they certainly cause delays now.
Where trams run in their own segregated lanes, they mostly seemed to have reasonable physical separation, though I suppose this might prevent emergency vehicles using them. Note the centre fencing, presumably to discourage pedestrians crossing where they’re not meant to.
Some of the older trams are high-floor, not level boarding/accessible. But much of the fleet is made up of newer accessible vehicles.
All of the trams in service seem to be are articulated, longer models, akin to Melbourne’s newer E, D2 and B-class fleet. (Melbourne will go that way, with the phasing-out of the Z-class fleet, and eventually the As, to be replaced by bigger trams such as the E-class.)
All the stops I recall seeing had platforms, even if they were just raised kerb extensions like this:
Most if not all stops also had screens with real-time information, something currently only available at major tram stops around Melbourne.
Stop spacing seemed to be wider than in Melbourne — it’s not clear to me if this was always the case in Brussels. Changing this could be controversial, especially if it moves stops away from intersections, which provide pedestrian access via neighbouring streets.
Further out in the suburbs of Brussels, most of the trams run along dedicated tracks, often alongside roads, though I didn’t see any in the middle of boulevards like St Kilda Road, Dandenong Road or Victoria Parade in Melbourne.
This one, route 3, is actually a “pre-metro” route, — partly underground (see below).
Where they had to cross roads, the trams seemed to have good priority – it seemed rare to have to wait at traffic lights. Wikipedia says that tram priority has been installed at 150 intersections, and it certainly shows.
Brussels trams have no conductors. Ticket validators were on the trams, with ticket machines at the stops – at least most of the stops, from what I saw. Stop spacing seems to be wider than in Melbourne, making provision of ticket machines more practical, though still expensive on a big network.
Apparently you can buy a single trip ticket from the driver, which is more expensive. I didn’t see anybody doing this.
Given it’s an open system, I assume there are random ticket inspections, though I didn’t see any occur.
Inside the trams are colour displays telling you which line you were on, the name of upcoming stops, and which tram, bus and metro lines you can interchange to at the next stop, along with an indicator showing which side to exit. Alongside GPS with Google Maps, it made it very easy to navigate, even for a non-French-speaking tourist newbie like me.
Trams waiting at the terminus would show how many minutes to depart, alternating with other information on the destination display. Very handy when there were several trams waiting. This would be great at termini such as Elizabeth Street or Acland Street.
Some tram lines are completely segregated, with underground sections. This is known in parts of Europe as “pre-metro”: a transitional phase between light rail and fully-blown metro. In some cases these operate with signals and other heavy-rail-like infrastructure.
Edit: a chat with someone who knows about this stuff indicates that pre-metro may be found in Belgium but is rare elsewhere. Underground sections of tramways have been implemented in many cities to bypass congestion points, but most of these are done with no intention of later conversion from trams to metro as happened with Brussels Metro Line 1, built in the 1960s as pre-metro and converted to metro in 1976.
Pre-metro stations are big like metro stations, with paid areas and fare gates. The platforms are low and short, to suit the trams using them, but ready for conversion later.
Would this work in Melbourne? There were some proposals last century to bury tram lines in the city centre, though this was not part of a plan of conversion to metro later. The advantages are speed and capacity for trams, as they have absolute priority. But the disadvantage is it’s a longer process for people to enter the stations and board the trams.
Still, for Brussels it’s an interesting step between trams and metros.
Melbourne’s metro tunnel will relieve St Kilda Road trams, but it’s main goal is providing heavy rail capacity to existing lines in the city centre, so in that context it wouldn’t work.
The Brussels Metro
Then there’s the actual Metro, which in Brussels has several lines, some developed out of pre-metro lines. The network is relatively new, with the first lines having opened as pre-metro trams in the 1960s, and heavy rail in the 1970s.
Metro routes are numbered, with the numbering being consistent with the trams. The rail network map includes both Metro and pre-metro routes. In this map, lines 1, 2, 5 and 6 are Metro, lines 3, 4 and 7 are pre-metro trams.
The Brussels Metro trains are bigger than trams, and as you’d expect, they use high platforms and signals (though some of the trams and pre-metro lines also use signals). Frequency is similar — for passengers, the main difference is the capacity.
Most of the Metro fleet in Brussels is from a 1970s design, with very boxy carriages, but we found they were clean and fast. There are four sets of doors per carriage, and as seen in the video above, you pull a handle to open them. They close and lock before leaving the station.
The trains feature lots of orange, and feel a bit smaller than the suburban trains you see in Melbourne, but are larger than London’s deep tunnel Tube trains.
Newer Brussels Metro trains also have the orange colour scheme and hard seats that don’t look very comfortable, but aren’t too bad for short trips.
To my surprise, there is a public timetable, but it appears few people ever look at it. The base frequency on the individual lines seems to be 10 minutes until late at night (about 6-8 minutes in peak hours), but much of the network has multiple routes sharing tracks, making a combined all-day frequency of 5 minutes at most stations (3-6 in peak).
This official page notes current upgrades will allow frequency up to 30 trains per hour in some sections, with new trains starting to replace the old, and line extensions. This also appears to be associated with proposed future driverless operation of the trains.
Countdown clocks and/or train location indicators are provided on every platform.
The in-carriage displays on the older, more common, trains are far more primitive than on the trams, but still manage to alternate between the route/destination and the next station name, and have an indicator showing which side the approaching platform is.
As in many cities, only some parts of the metro were underground – no doubt where there was no other option, given the cost. Some areas were elevated, or at ground level. No level crossings, of course.
All the stations were gated – mostly requiring a card to enter, but one-way gates not needing a card to exit — reflecting the flat fares. Ticket machines were at all the stations, only a few of which had staff.
Overall the network seems pretty busy at most times of day. At some stations we saw soldiers on duty, reflecting that Brussels is at a high alert level following terrorist attacks.
And finally there’s the heavy rail network. This is completely separate to the Metro, and much older, dating back to 1835.
Around suburban Brussels, there’s the S-trains (with numbers, similar to German suburban trains), suburban services covering areas of Brussels mostly not covered by Metro and train.
Further afield are intercity and international trains, including high speed services. In some cases, the intercity express trains currently share tracks with the suburban trains, but we saw a lot of track expansion works, so in the future I’d expect to see more dedicated tracks for trains of different speeds.
Currently most of the suburban services are not very frequent — typically only every 30 minutes. The track expansion is part of the planned Brussels RER, which will enable higher frequencies.
While the Belgian network is completely state owned, other operators run their trains into and through Belgium, including state railways from Germany and the Netherlands, and private operators such as Eurostar and Thalys.
In the Belgian fleet, there was a mix of ages of train. Some of the suburban fleet were modern and spacious, and we caught an intercity double-deck train that looked very new, perhaps built to cope with the big crowds we saw on some services.
There’s a mix of First Class and Standard Class accommodation on all trains, including S suburban routes.
Platforms also vary. At many stations, you have to climb steps up into the trains. Unlike the tram and Metro networks, there doesn’t seem to be any current effort to implement level boarding.
Passenger information was provided by displays in the newer carriages, but this was lacking in the older ones. At busy stations, information was excellent. A bit mixed at the minor stations. Information was generally provided in two languages (French and Dutch/Flemish) or even three (add English).
The trains themselves were mostly spotless — same with the trams and Metro carriages. But unfortunately, occasionally you did see one with extensive graffiti on carriages, such as this one, which includes covering part of one window, as well as the destination display. (As is often the convention, I’ve pixellated it so the vandals don’t get their work displayed by me.)
Some stations have massive bicycle parking facilities, holding many hundreds of bikes. This is at Brugge:
The Brussels Mobib card used on the trams and Metro is valid on some parts of the heavy rail network within Brussels (all of the S/suburban services, I assume). On most other services, paper tickets are dispensed from vending machines, and checked by conductors on all the trains, including suburban trains. There are no gates at stations.
Outside the Mobib/suburban area, there are a variety of fare discounts – far wider than what we see in Australia for just children, low incomes and pensioners: There are special deals for journalists, military personnel, families, and even pregnant women get free upgrades to First Class.
…and yes, they have a train to the airport.
Lessons for Melbourne
So what are the good things that the Belgians are doing that could be translated to Melbourne and Victoria?
The Brussels Metro being a completely separate rail system to the heavy rail network is, I think, not something that is terribly useful in a Melbourne context. Many European cities adopted separate metro systems to get rail into historic city centres where heavy rail couldn’t go, for reasons of cost or political barriers — think of London’s heavy rail vs Underground systems. That’s not an issue in Australian cities.
In any case, the trend recently seems to be to extend heavy rail underground through city centres — the Brussels RER will include tunnelling to connect existing heavy rail lines; London is doing it with Crossrail to connect urban rail through the city; Zurich recently completed a cross-city rail tunnel — all of these are similar in principle to Melbourne’s metro rail tunnel project.
Separating out rail routes, as Melbourne’s tunnel will help do, can help transition the Melbourne suburban network into a big city metro. For passengers, the primary benefit of the Brussels Metro over Melbourne’s suburban trains is frequent service all day, cutting waiting times and making interchange easier. We can do this too.
The use of double-deck trains on busy intercity and commuter routes is perhaps something that should be considered here. There’s a dwell time impact that means they are less attractive on frequent routes (eg Melbourne’s metro/suburban lines), but V/Line’s commuter services might benefit from them, provided dwells can be managed — the current V/Locity fleet isn’t great for this either, though it may be less of an issue in the context of the busiest station being the terminal at Southern Cross, with lots of platforms.
Passenger information, particularly on Brussels trams, is something we could adopt — with colour screens showing next stop and interchanges to train/tram/bus. Gold Coast Light Rail has put colour screens in its trams, and in fact Yarra Trams is starting to trial these on some trams — good to see.
There’s clearly room for improvements to information at tram stops, railway stations, and on-board buses and trains too.
Tram priority in Brussels and other European cities might be where we can learn the most. Proper separation of dedicated tram lanes along streets is rare in Melbourne, resulting in a lot of motor vehicles getting onto the tracks.
Melbourne trams spend an unbelievable 17% of their time simply waiting at red lights. So we not only have the world’s biggest tram network, we also have the slowest. I haven’t found any hard data for Brussels, but from the tram rides I took — primarily on reserved track — delays seemed far fewer.
Therefore, in the eyes of regional representatives, remote controlled traffic lights cannot represent a point of contention and must constantly lead to a compromise with respect to the physical and temporal sharing of space. The priority given to public transport is a relative – and not total – priority. It is an explicit political choice. Brigitte Grouwels explains that:
“the system of remote controlled traffic lights functions according to the principle of “maximum priority”, and not absolute priority. During the design of traffic light plans, certain limits have been imposed on the system: no traffic light cycle longer than 120 seconds and no blocking of successive crossroads.” [BCR parliament, 2010].
And in Melbourne? We’ve had numerous trials. Technology doesn’t seem to be a barrier. It comes down to politics.
It’d be nice to think there was the political will to systematically cut delays to Melbourne’s trams. It would mean much more efficient use of our huge tram network and its fleet, and increasing service frequencies for “free”, and make public transport a quicker more attractive option.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.