Rail Ticketing – A Complex Farce?!


In the UK, the complexity of buying the correct train ticket and knowing when to use it has turned into a farce.  Why?

Complexity – A Way of Life through Technology

It seems the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who designed and implemented the systems through ATOC are now blaming the UK Government for over regulation.  Whilst many criticisms may be levelled at the UK Government, ticketing for train journeys is surely a problem of the TOC’s own making.

When I travelled more regularly by rail, I simply turned up at the station, caught the train, and bought the ticket from the guard.  Or, on occasion I would go to my nearest manned station, go to the ticket office counter and buy the ticket – sometimes the day before I was due to travel.

Now, as ticket offices seem to be in decline, and maybe as guards’ ability to issue tickets may be on the way out, I am being ‘encouraged’ to buy tickets online, or through the automated machines at some stations.  The latter is a real challenge – not all stations have them, not all the information needed is available on the machine, and the touch-screen displays leave a lot to be desired – they are certainly not intuitive.  Just badly designed ICT systems and software.

Online & Smartphone

What about online services?  Smartphone apps, or using a tablet or laptop is relatively easy, but getting the right ticket, for the right train, at the right time seems to be a complex process and interconnection with the TOC’s timetabling systems.  But, the app/web ticketing providers are growing at a fair old rate, here are a few:

  • thetrainline.com
  • mytrainticket.co.uk
  • virgintrains.co.uk
  • redspottedhanky.co.uk
  • raileasy.co.uk
  • railsaver.co.uk

On top of this, there are various regional train ticket sellers, such as Eastmidlandstrains.co.uk/tickets-deals.  And all of that before you try and find a ticket!

Using National Rail Enquiries

Let’s say you want to travel from Lancaster to London Euston between 7 am and 10am on a Saturday morning – on the National Rail Enquiries page, the first option offered is a Glasgow to London Virgin train – but with 1 change of train.  Why?  Well, it seems that in order to buy this particular ticket, you have to get off a London bound train at Crewe, then wait for another London bound train that stops at Crewe, to complete your journey!

The second entry shows the same train, with no changes.  Noticeable too is that the system chooses to display the 1st class ticket price first as an ‘Advance’ fare, and you can ONLY use the ticket on this train.


Is that a sane idea?   Just as amusing is the little window that pops up on the screen to say “We are searching all train operators for you” – there is only one between Lancaster and London – that’s Virgin West Coast!  Maybe whoever designed the software needs to understand a bit more about rail franchising UK style!!

Ticket Costs

Naturally, with amongst the poorest rail networks in Western Europe, the UK has some of the highest fares.  Back to our Lancaster to London example, using National Rail on a laptop:

Anytime from £176.00
First Class Advance from £75.00
First Class Anytime from £245.00
Off-Peak from £92.20

So, in this example – for a single outward journey – you can buy a ticket in advance (typically varies from 24hrs, to 12 weeks in advance of travelling), the off-peak ticket (i.e. travelling outside rush hour, based on London timings) will cost you £17 more than the ‘Advance’ fare. These might be classed as similar to the old ‘cheap day’ or ‘excursion’ tickets, but noticeably, if you want to buy a SINGLE ticket on the day of travel it will cost you £245 to travel between Lancaster and London.

All of which assumes you have battled your way through the less than clear T’s & C’s on web sites, or ticketing machines.

OK, so what about standard class fares?  Well, clearly the National Rail Enquiries platform wants you to buy first class tickets, since they’re presented first!

In order to get the ‘standard class’ fares for the same service you have to click through the ‘Cheapest Fare Finder’ further down the front page.  Clever, or underhanded – you choose.

For the same train times, this is what you get:


Why would National Rail Enquiries show a 1st class fare at a lower price than the standard equivalent – on the SAME TRAIN!

Route Options

The principal WCML route to London from Lancaster is of course via the Trent Valley.  However, just to make things exciting, the services identified above – i.e. no changes between Lancaster and London – each go via Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry.


To go directly from Lancaster to London in the breakfast time period at Lancaster, you really need to get the 08:38, which takes the conventional route.

On top of which, the later train gets you to London 17 minutes sooner!!


Doesn’t alter the amazing complexity of the fares structure though, and I’ve not fully explored the online offerings, or using one of the numerous discount cards.

Online Offerings

An example from Trainline.Com, the Lancaster to London Euston departing 08:38 Sat 11th February – cost £49-50, with a ‘booking fee’ of £0-50 – so a total of £50 – this is the same ticket price for the earlier 07:56 train.  Intriguingly, on the app, it says the original price was £75, saving 33%, so this must be the 1st class ticket.

Bring back British Railways, heavy paper timetables by region, and make better use of online ticketing – without the numerous little online shops offering to buy tickets and sell them on to you.  That particular arrangement smacks of something like ticket touts, or trying to buy festival or theatre tickets.


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