Rail fares jumped by up to 5.9 per cent in England and Wales on 5 March, the largest increase in more than a decade.
The price hike will add hundreds to the cost of many annual season tickets as well as pushing up the cost of many return and single journeys. In Scotland, meanwhile, peak fares on ScotRail will be paused for six months to make rail travel more affordable – although a date for the initiative is still to be set.
Fares are rising despite reports of poor service on the railways, with Office of Rail and Road (ORR) data revealing that the equivalent of one in 25 train services were cancelled in the 12 months to 4 February, which represents the worst reliability in records that date back to 2014. Meanwhile, more rail strike dates are planned in March and April by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union as a long-running dispute with the government over pay, jobs and working conditions continues.
Huw Merriman, the minister for rail and HS2, said that the government has made its biggest ever intervention by delaying the price rise and keeping it below inflation. The rise in prices is 6.4 percentage points below the July 2022 inflation figure that is based on the retail prices index, against which fares have typically matched.
Nevertheless, both commuters and leisure travellers will be hit by higher costs on rail journeys. Here’s what you need to know and how to find cheaper tickets.
Which tickets are affected by the fare hike?
Regulated fares will rise on average by 5.9 per cent, this affects season tickets, trips to and from major cities and off-peak fares on longer journeys. This is the highest annual rise since a 6.2 per cent hike in 2012.
The government controls the price of “regulated” fares while the price of unregulated fares is set by rail companies on a commercial basis. Around 45 per cent of fares are regulated.
Many unregulated fares have also increased, including some anytime fares. However, there is no overall jump in advance ticket prices as these are set by train companies at the price that is expected to make the most revenue, with a figure that undercuts anytime tickets. Advance fares require passengers to book in advance and to travel on specific trains – they are also non-refundable.
How can you get cheaper train tickets?
Flexible season tickets
These are aimed at part-time commuters and offer eight days of travel in 28 days, at any time, between two stations. They can provide hundreds of pounds in savings, but in some instances can be more expensive. National Rail offers a season ticket calculator.
Book about 12 weeks before travel
Network rail usually secures timetables 12 weeks in advance. Some operators will release cheaper tickets soon after, and some will sell them more than 12 weeks before travel, although journey times can change. Typically, it is best to book as early as possible within those 12 weeks.
Most passengers will be aware that travelling during off-peak times or booking in advance can offer savings on train tickets. However, there are less obvious ways in which they might use the ticketing system to their advantage.
Splitting a journey into more than one ticket can be a way to cut costs on some routes, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a change of trains.
The biggest savings for splitting a ticket can come during the windows of peak and off-peak journey times. Train companies such as LNER and train booking websites have features to help you save by splitting tickets.
Passengers can also do their own research to find split fare savings. The first step is to source the standard price for the rail journey, checking its calling points, then seeing if it is possible to buy a separate ticket from any of those stations that works out cheaper.
Splitting tickets is fine, according to the National Rail Conditions of Travel. However, the train must call at all the stations that you buy tickets for.
Short-notice advance tickets
Buying a timed train ticket online in advance can cut the price compared with buying an anytime ticket, even on the day of travel. For example, a spot check carried out on 6 March for an advance ticket from Oxford to London Marylebone travelling at 19.31 on 8 March was available for £12, while an off-peak advance ticket for the same route was £31.70.
Advance tickets can be bought on the day of travel through some operators (note bookings may be online-only), including:
- Avanti West Coast
- Gatwick Express
- Grand Central
- Greater Anglia
- London North Eastern Railway
- Stansted Express
The savings made on a single journey can pay off the cost of a railcard in some instances. Options available to passengers depend on their age and with whom they are travelling. Railcards for people aged 16-25, 26-30 and 60 or over offer a third off most rail fares throughout Britain. Other options include a Two Together Railcard, for two named people travelling together, the Disabled Person railcard, Family & Friends Railcard, Network Railcard (for those travelling in the South East), the 16-17 Saver and the Veterans Railcard.
However, the use of some cards includes time restrictions. Passengers with a Senior Railcard cannot use it during the morning peak period, for example.
Buying singles instead of a return
Return train tickets will be scrapped under British rail system reforms. However, a date is yet to be set for this to be implemented country-wide. LNER, which runs trains along the East Coast mainline, is to extend its trial of only selling single tickets from spring. In 2020, it ran a trial of scrapping returns on some journeys.
For now, returns are still available. However, it can be cheaper to buy two singles – so passengers should check before booking.