Letting the Train Cause the Strain

In which The Author fancies a break

It’s that time of year again, when the claustrophobic nature of Aberdare and the closed-minded nature of many of its denizens really starts to grate on my nerves. It usually happens when the nice weather finally arrives, and my friends start embarking on day trips or short breaks to relieve the monotony of small town life.
Yesterday, Rhian and I had a pint in the beer garden of Thereisnospoon, and talked about our various misadventures at the hands of Arriva Trains Wales over the years. It’s a pity that I wasn’t blogging back in the day, as I could have started a subsidiary blog charting the various events which prevented us from getting to work on time, or getting home at a reasonable hour. British Rail used to have an advertising slogan, Let the train take the strain. I told Rhian that my blog would have been called Let the Train Cause the Strain, and I’ve decided to adapt that title for this entry instead.
I told her about a day trip to the north Devon resort of Lynmouth (and the neighbouring village of Lynton) which I took on a Sunday many years ago. I was the youngest person on board the coach – in fact, I might have been the only person under sixty – but I was so used to travelling solo that it didn’t matter. As soon as we disembarked I went exploring, and covered a fair bit of territory in the time available. I’ll have to dig out the photos and put some of them in another entry.
We’re going to have a look at the day trips offered by our local coach companies and see what takes our fancy. We’ve already pencilled in a visit to Caerphilly for next week, and that’ll be a train excursion. Because the Valley Lines operate a zone system, similar to that used by Transport for London and other PTAs, it’s no more expensive than a trip to Cardiff. Which brings me to the subject of train fares (again!)
As my regular readers will already know, public transport in the South Wales Valleys is so piss-poor that by the time you’ve arrived somewhere decent, it’s virtually time to come home again. The Western Mail printed my most recent contribution, A Letter to the Editor 17, last Thursday, so you already know about the impossibility of getting to Swansea, barely twenty miles away and an easy half-hour run in the car.
Even so, with a modicum of forward planning and online research, places as far apart as Carmarthen and Salisbury are potential destinations for a day trip. As long as you’re prepared for long waits between trains, and you leave plenty of margin for error, you can get to interesting places. Just don’t buy your ticket on the morning of your departure.
As I told you in A Farey Tale, there doesn’t seem to be any logic or reasoning behind the prices of train tickets. Matthew Engel, in his excellent and very amusing book about the British railway system, Eleven Minutes Late (Macillan, 2010), mentions some glaring anomalies in the fare structure. I’d like to highlight some others, which I’ve discovered this very day while perusing the Arriva Trains Wales website.
First of all, I’d better discuss the different types of ticket available. They fall into four broad categories:
Advance Tickets, which are for specific trains and don’t allow any flexibility;
Anytime Day Tickets, which are valid on any train throughout the day;
Off-peak Tickets, which aren’t valid early in the morning or during the evening ‘rush hour’;
Anytime Returns, which are valid on any train and remain open for a month.
Let’s compare the prices for a short-notice journey – leaving Aberdare tomorrow morning, in fact.
Aberdare – Bath Spa
A nice straightforward journey, involving a single change of trains at Cardiff Central. Total journey time: just under three hours (including waiting time at Cardiff.)
  • Anytime Single: £23.30
  • Anytime Day Return: £26.10
  • Off-peak Single: £22.00
  • Off-peak Day Return: £22.10
  • Anytime Return: £27.80
Cardiff Central – Bath Spa
Now, logic would suggest that cutting out the first part of the journey (the twenty-odd miles between Aberdare and Cardiff) would reduce the price substantially. You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment…
  • Advance Single: £12.80
  • Anytime Single: £19.40
  • Anytime Day Return: £26.10
  • Off-peak Single: £19.30
  • Anytime Day Return: £22.20
  • Anytime Return: £25.10
Add the extra five quid or so for a single ticket from Aberdare to Cardiff, or £7.70 return, and you’re soon considerably out of pocket.
Let’s try another destination on the Arriva Trains Wales network, a fairly reasonable journey with a single change at Cardiff Central. Approximately two and a half hours, depending on what time of day you travel.
Cardiff – Hereford
  • Anytime Day Single: £24.10
  • Anytime Day Return: £29.00
  • Off-peak Return: £37.60
(Incidentally, if you don’t mind sitting on a bus for a couple of hours, you can travel to Hereford for just under eight quid.)
Let’s try something else entirely.
Ross D. and Richard B. have extended me an open invitation to visit them in Brighton. With this in mind, I decided to compare the possibilities for that journey. I’ve taken into account the fact that Brighton is unexplored territory for me, so I’d like to cover some of the rail network which I’ve never seen before. It turns out that there are a couple of possibilities, and a huge variation in ticket prices:
Aberdare – Brighton (via Salisbury & Southampton)
Two changes of train, at Cardiff Central and Southampton Central. Journey time six and a half hours. (This isn’t a day trip by any stretch of the imagination!)
This is far more complicated than it seems, in fact. Depending on what time of day you’re travelling, a return ticket can cost £75.50, £82.50, £103.00, or a whopping £250! Let’s try something else.
Aberdare – Brighton (via London)
This would be a nice option for me, as it would cover the stretch between Farringdon and Brighton. It involves three changes of train and a trip on the London Underground (included in the price, so I wouldn’t have to use my Oyster card.) Journey time is approximately five and a half hours.
You might expect the same fares to apply. Needless to say, it isn’t that straightforward in practice. It’s possible to buy a single ticket for the outward trip at £36.10, and a single ticket for the homeward trip at £37.20 – a whisker less than the cheapest return ticket. Even better, the journeys are by different routes, so I’d get to highlight a fair chunk of S.K. Baker’s Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland into the bargain. Could there be a plan coming together?
Well, no, maybe not. I’ve gone to a website which offers cheap rail tickets, and put in a date a few weeks hence. The cheapest single ticket for the outward leg, via Salisbury and Southampton, is just £19.40. If I saved the Brighton – London stretch for another day, I could visit the lads for less than forty quid.
Yet another website, which I saw advertised on TV a couple of weeks ago, has a return ticket for £65.00. There’s also a single (via London) for £21.70, and another single (via Southampton and Salisbury) for £19.40. They’re just some of the fares on offer, as you can see:

Screenshot from 2014-04-16 17:08:26

Buying two single tickets well in advance will knock twenty-five quid off the cost, and give me a couple of hundred miles of new railway lines to travel over.
Is it any wonder that people find booking train tickets a headache, when there’s such a bewildering variety on offer? In Meanwhile, In a Century Near You, I told you about the shenanigans which Huw F. had gone through to book our return tickets to London, a week or so in advance. If we’d had more advance warning, we could have probably saved a few quid.
I mentioned on Facebook that I was starting this project today. Richard B. himself contributed a counter-intuitive example from his own experience:
Brighton to London Victoria – £17.30 single ticket and £17.40 return ticket. There are also single tickets at £25.80 and returns at £24.30. Makes no sense whatsoever!
Successive governments have promised to look into the rail companies’ byzantine fare structures, but nothing ever seems to happen. It’s the illogical result of an ill-thought-out policy, which even the former Conservative Transport Minister Cecil Parkinson described as ‘a privatisation too far.’
I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I’m flexible about when I get to travel. People who aren’t able to plan a month or more ahead (or who don’t use the Internet) pay through the nose for a journey which has cost their fellow travellers a fraction of the price. I hesitate to use the word ‘profiteering’ to describe the situation, but it seems appropriate in this case.