Travelcard travesty

05Aug10

One of the great things about my new office in the City is that I can now do my commute without having to use the Tube. I can jump on a train to London Bridge and either walk from there (~20min) or catch another train to take me over the river to Cannon Street, which shortens the walk to ~5min. It’s not always that simple though. If I need to be in the office by 8 then the best plan is a Gatwick Express to Victoria then the District/Circle line to Mansion House. There are also times when I need to be in other parts of London, so I’m often left torn between getting a weekly travelcard (a ticket that includes unlimited tube journeys at a premium of £9 ) or just a one week train only season ticket (and use an Oyster pay as you go for the occasional tube journeys – the break even is 5 Zone 1 rides).

  • Weekly rule – buy a Travelcard unless you’re pretty sure that you’ll make less than 5 tube journeys.

Things get even more complicated if I don’t need to be in London all week. A peak time return from Haywards Heath to London is £32.60, but to get this as a travelcard is £39.20 (that £9 premium for a week turns into a £6.60 premium for a day!)[1]. The issue here is the Gatwick Express. The Gatwick Express used to be very special – an overpriced way of separating tourists from their money and whisking them from Victoria to the Airport in 30m [2]. But these days the Gatwick Express serves commuters too by running all the way to/from Brighton in peak hours. My problem is that I like the Gatwick Express. It tends to be (slightly) less (over)crowded, and tourists (who you’ll probably never see again) are somehow less annoying than grumpy commuters (same faces every day).

  • Peak daily rule – buy a regular ticket and use Oyster PAYG for the tube rides.
  • If you need to be in town before 10am more than twice in a week then buy a weekly

But that’s not all. There’s even more confusion generated by operator specific and destination specific tariffs. It’s possible to get further discounts by choosing to use a single operator such as First Capital Connect [3] (FCC only) or a single destination such as Victoria (from which you can only get Southern Trains[4]). Things get even more baroque with off peak tickets [5], which range from £20.30 for an unrestricted travelcard to £11.40 for a restricted rail only return.

Overall it’s a very similar situation to airline tickets. There’s a comparatively small base price for a journey [6] and then you’re basically buying options (to travel when you want, to start and end your journey at different stations, to use the trains of different operators, to have Tube bundled in). There are clearly some irregularities in the options pricing model that are there to be gamed by the savvy operator, which may be one of the reasons that the National Rail site doesn’t actually bother to fully explain pricing/restrictions on the tickets it displays.

I’ll finish with a little story. I was on a train to Victoria a few weeks back and the conductor was doing his rounds checking tickets. One of the preceding stations was Cooksbridge, which apparently doesn’t have the infrastructure to sell tickets [7]. An old chap asked for a return to Victoria, and the conductor told him instead to buy a return to Aldershot and a return from Clapham Junction to Victoria. This apparently was what all the smart Cooksbridge travellers were doing, and the numbers show why. A return ticket to Aldershot (where Clapham Junction is a valid route) costs £17 and the return for the short hop from Clapham to Victoria is a mere £4.30 – a total of £21.30 to hold valid tickets for the entire journey[8], which is a saving of £10.10 (33%) against the regular ticket price of £30.40. Clearly the Haywards Heathens that use Southern to Victoria are missing a trick – they could do the same and spend £16.10 + £4.30 (= £20.40) rather than £30.80, though that would mean no option of using the Gatwick Express on the way home. London clearly exerts a strong reality distortion field on train fares (and it’s good to see that the world still has a place for friendly and helpful conductors rather than their evil twin the ‘enforcement officer’).

[1] There’s also a ‘not via Gatwick Express’ daily peak travelcard available for £34.90. So the Gatwick Express premium is £4.30 if you buy travelcards, but only £1.30 if you buy a return ticket and make a couple of Zone 1 trips on Oyster PAYG.

[2] There are plenty of regular trains that run from Victoria and London Bridge to the airport that can cost a lot less for the extra 3 minutes or so that they take

[3] FCC seem to offer the best discounts, presumably because their trains are the least reliable, and most of the carriages seems to have been designed for midgets rather than people with regular length legs. Their service from City Thameslink is however pretty handy for the office, and their evening rush hour trains that avoid London Bridge tend to be not too packed (on the rare occasions that they’re not carrying double passengers because of earlier cancellations) and offer a reasonable timetable (on the rare occasions that they actually run to schedule).

[4] Southern also operates the Gatwick Express brand, but there are some tickets that exclude its use.

[5] Defined by outbound trains that get into London after 10am. There also seems to be a ‘super off peak’ rate which also restricts the return journey to before 1645 or after 1915.

[6] There’s another whole category of ‘Advance fare’ tickets that don’t really apply to commuter routes, but that can have startling price differences if you’re going further afield to say Manchester, York or Newcastle.

[7] Most stations these days have automated ticket machines, even when there’s no (or only a  minimal) ticket office. Some though expect the travellers to buy a ‘permit to travel‘ where they pay a nominal sum, to show good faith, which is then discounted from the fair they pay on the train or before exiting the destination station.

[8] Unlike the airlines the train companies don’t have an effective means of ensuring that passengers complete entire journeys that have extraneous legs to them.



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