Rail ticket prices bust the inflation barrier

A planned 8% rise was derailed but many commuters will still feel the pain. Miles Brignall looks at how to save

With train fares rising by an average of 5.9% on Monday 2 January, when few of us have had a pay rise, there’s probably never been a better time to take a proper look at how you can cut your travel costs. Following George Osborne’s intervention in his autumn statement, the train companies were limited to that average, rather than the 8% price hike allowed under the formula set by the government.

It’s still an inflation-busting rise and will typically add £250-£400 a year to the price of many season tickets. It has been attacked by passenger groups and commuters alike.

A Northampton to London annual season ticket increases by 6.92% to £4,756. A 12-month season ticket between Diss and London Liverpool Street will cost £6,420, as opposed to £6,060 this year, while an annual season ticket between Basingstoke and London Waterloo rises from £3,580 to £3,792. A super off-peak return from London to Edinburgh rises by £6.80 to £121.60. The train companies can impose bigger increases on some routes if they introduce smaller ones elsewhere.

If you are caught up in this, what can you do? For those who have to be at the office by 9am, five days a week, there’s little option but to buy a season ticket. Be aware that you can buy these for less than a 12-month period. If you are, say, going on maternity leave in 17 weeks’ time, you can ask the booking office for a 17-week season ticket, which will be cheaper than buying a series of monthlies or weeklies.

It can also be worth looking at alternative routes from nearby stations, and even those from the same station. A standard 12-month Bristol to London season ticket this year was £9,432, but if you agreed to travel only on the Warminster and Salisbury route, you paid £6,628.

However, if you reduce the number of days you need to be in the office, or move to off-peak travel, a host of money-saving opportunities open up.

First up is the carnet ticket. These allow you to pre-buy books of 10 tickets, and you typically get a 10%-20% discount depending on the rail company. Chiltern Railways, for example, offers 12 open return tickets for the price of 10, while First Capital Connect offers nine singles for the price of 10. Carnet savings depend on your journeys but can offer big discounts if you make single journeys. Most of the rail firms now offer carnets but often fail to publicise them. They are also available on several intercity routes too, and can be a boon for those who travel two or three days a week.

If you travel after 10am (or can start doing so), a £28-a-year Network Railcard, which covers most of southern England – from Exeter in the west to Clacton in the east – gives a third off most fares. There’s a minimum fare requirement of £13 Monday to Friday, but off-peak travellers into London from, say, Cambridge, could save a fortune with this card.

Another trick is to buy southern England’s cheapest annual season ticket: Ryde Esplanade to Ryde Pier Head on the Isle of Wight, which will set you back £232 next year. This also allows a third off fares in the Network card area, but without the minimum charge. Again only after 10am.

Everyone knows if you book early, you can often get good-value fares – but they disappear fast. Network Rail has to have its timetables in place 12 weeks in advance, and train operators commonly, though not always, release cheap advance tickets at around the same time. If you register, Thetrainline.com ticket alert system will send you an email the moment cheap advance tickets come on sale.

The train companies also do special promotions, and if you travel regularly, it’s worth spending time online looking for the best deals. Remember, if you have to travel last-minute, much cheaper advance fares are available until 6pm the day before you travel.

Split ticketing – buying two tickets that make up a journey – seems to have been tightened up in recent years, but can still give discounts. The often-quoted example is a ticket from London to Penzance where an anytime day return can cost more than £250, but by buying four singles it can be cut to just £70. You don’t have to change trains; you’re just splitting the ticket.

This is particularly useful if part of your journey is a peak fare and the rest is off-peak. The Split Your Ticket website can help, but you may need to find your own deals on National Rail’s site.

Miles Brignall

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