Huffpost UK Lifestyle uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sean O'Meara Headshot

Whoever Gets the West Coast Mainline, Driving Will Still be Cheaper (Unless You Live in Birmingham)

Posted: Updated:

We have an outrageously expensive rail network in the UK. Regardless of which franchisee operates the West Coast Mainline, this is unlikely to change any time soon. In fact, unless you are lucky enough to be able to book in advance, it's often cheaper to take the car.

Watch My Wallet recently revealed that it's up to 44% cheaper to drive from Manchester into London than it is to get the train. This includes parking in inner London and getting tube tickets for four people.

The cheapest train fare we could find for a family of two adults and two children travelling from Manchester on the 20th July and returning on the 22nd was £214.20.

Even if we assume the journey is happening in an uneconomical car and that petrol costs £150 for the round trip and then add £3.50 to leave the car at North Ealing tube station for a day (£1 at weekends) plus tube travel for the family at £15.80, it's still only £119.30.

That's £94.90 cheaper than getting the train.

So when you look at rail fares across Europe, it's hard not to be jealous. An annual season ticket from Woking to London (22 miles) costs £3,268. Travelling similar distances in other European capitals looks eye-wateringly good value by comparison.

France - Ballancourt-sur-Essonne to Paris (24 miles), £924.66
Germany - Strausberg to Berlin (21 miles), £705.85
Spain - Collado-Villalba to Madrid (22 miles), £653.74
Italy - Velletri to Rome (22 miles), £336.17

Sophie Allain, spokesperson for the Campaign for Better Transport, who provided the European train travel figures above, said:

"We knew we had some of the most expensive rail fares in Europe, if not the world, but even we were shocked by how much more the UK ticket was in comparison to our European counterparts."

Why is UK Train Travel So Expensive?

Due to the segregated nature of our network, there are different pricing policies for different parts of the country. These are partly influenced by labour costs in that particular region. Because each franchise is typically the only operator in its region, there is very little competition to keep prices down.

There is one anomaly here though. Due to its central location, Birmingham is served by a variety of operators, so travelling south to London and north to Edinburgh means you can chose between Virgin, Chiltern, London Midland or Cross Country for the cheapest fare.

Here's how to Save Money on Train Travel

Plan ahead: Booking in advance where available is a good start, although you typically can't book more than 13 weeks ahead. Redspottedhanky.com is a good resource for finding cheap advanced fares.

Split your journey up. Breaking the trip into sections is a tedious process, but this approach allows you to get the best fare from each operator, helping you to save money.

For example, an off-peak return from Glasgow to Nottingham purchased eight weeks in advance will cost £68. But the same return journey broken up into the following sections costs just £51.50;
Glasgow to Preston (£20.50), Preston to Manchester (£12.00) and Manchester to Nottingham (£19.00).
You don't necessarily need to change trains, just make sure the times match up. Splityourticket.co.uk can help.

This method requires you to travel at specific times. So be careful, you can only claim back the cost of the relevant section of the journey if the train is delayed or cancelled, even if you miss your remaining connections.

Get a railcard:
The 16-25 (formerly Young Person's Railcard), Disabled Person Railcard, Family and Friends Railcard, Senior Rail Card and Network Railcard all get you 1/3 of fares. These cost £28 to buy, so if you spend £84 or more on rail travel per year, it's worth it.