Searching for the most expensive train journey

Man on platform

Rail fares have gone up again, leading to claims that Britain has the most expensive trains in Europe, if not the world. So what is Britain's most expensive stretch of railway?

You shell out thousands of pounds a year in exchange for half an hour standing with your face hidden behind the Daily Telegraph - or a copy of Metro - an elbow in the back, and from the public address system comes a series of garbled announcements about "the late running of this service".

Such is the caricatured experience of the commuter on Britain's expensive and overcrowded railways.

The arrival in January 2012 of a 6% hike in rail fares brought a mixture of weary resignation and anger from passengers. Season tickets to London from Stevenage reached £3,200, Leeds to Sheffield £2,148, and Manchester to Liverpool £2,688. Swansea to Cardiff is now £1,468 and Glasgow to Edinburgh is £3,380.

Recent research by the Campaign for Better Transport suggested that season tickets for commuters around London cost more than three times those of their Spanish and German equivalents, and 10 times more than those in Italy.

Much of the anger seems to be focused in England, particularly in the South East and London. In Scotland, ticket prices tend generally to be lower, reflecting higher subsidies.

Ticket machines at Clapham Junction The new year has brought price hikes

One of the most pricey routes in England is St Albans to London, where the season ticket of £2,988 works out at 31p a mile, or £10.60 for a single ticket at 52p a mile.

Sandy Walkington, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for St Albans in 2010, calculated in 2009 that the town had the most expensive commuter route in the country. With fares rising more or less uniformly since then, and British tickets the highest in Europe, he says that St Albans-London is now the most expensive commuter route in Europe.

But St Albans isn't the highest priced journey in the country. When the railways were privatised in 1995, commuter routes at peak times were capped by government, unlike their long distance equivalents.

So what is the country's most expensive stretch of railway? The obvious answer is the Heathrow Express, which clocks in at a rate of £1.17 a mile. But this is a one-off route used mainly by business travellers.

To search for the most expensive journey is to plunge into a blizzard of complexity and opaque terms and conditions. The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) says it operates services between 2,500 stations so cannot break them all down on a cost per mile basis.

Once upon a time, it would have been simple. Up until 1968 British Rail used a rigid price formula of 3.25d per mile (1.35p in decimal money).

Adjusted for inflation it works out at about 20 pence per mile. Perhaps surprisingly the average cost per mile today across the whole of the network is indeed about 20p. Railway expert Barry Doe says that in practice little changed until privatisation, at which point prices quickly diverged between the cheaper and more expensive routes.

Rail routes cost per mile

Journey Season* Advance* Off-peak* Anytime*

Source: Atoc *cost per mile





















St Albans-London





Skipton - Leeds




















Heathrow - London





The disparity between different rates per mile is bewildering across the country whatever the ticket type. An off peak fare from Kettering to London works out at 57 pence a mile, London to Manchester 40 pence, and Exeter to Penzance just 14p.

And for peak fares - known as Anytime tickets - some fares are close to reaching a pound a mile. Take a train at peak time from London to Manchester and the customer is charged £148 or 80 pence a mile.

Start Quote

More people have benefited from cheap fares than disbenefited from expensive tickets”

End Quote Mark Smith, rail expert

Atoc is quick to point out that only 2% of people - mainly business travellers - use Anytime tickets.

But that fails to take account of the people sitting in stations up and down the country until peak time ends and they can use a cheap ticket.

"At the time of privatisation it was felt that the market would regulate peak time fares on the long distance journeys," Doe says.

That didn't work because rather than costs falling they rose under the new franchises, who also put prices up disproportionately on the long distance Anytime ticket.

Don't be misled by the headlines though, says Mark Smith, who used to set fares at the Department of Transport and now runs the website The Man in Seat 61. Britain has opted for an airline-style pricing structure, which means it has the widest range of train ticket prices in the world.

So a return ticket from London to Manchester varies from £296 to £24 depending on how flexible you are willing to be about when you travel.

"We've got the most aggressively expensive and the most aggressively cheap tickets. And more people have benefited from the cheap fares than have disbenefited from the expensive tickets," Smith says.

And while Virgin is often cited as the most expensive operator in the country Smith says that the average price paid for a ticket on the West Coast line has actually fallen in the last decade due to the range of discounts available.

Meanwhile, Atoc argues that rising passenger numbers reflect more frequent and better services with a "decent range of value for money tickets". Last year there were 1.4 billion journeys by rail - the highest number since the 1920s, when the rail network was around twice the size it is now.

And it's harsh to blame operators for the price of commuter routes, which are largely determined by the level of subsidy, says Smith.

"In Britain we've traditionally chosen a lower subsidy and lower income tax. The money has got to come from somewhere." In other words, the commuter - often living in more prosperous parts of the country - foots more of the bill but pays less income tax than their counterparts in Europe.

map of rail routes in uk

But railway fares are not just about money. Most people will have heard stories of the complexity, absurd anomalies and illogical rules that go with train tickets. There's the man who was fined £155 for getting off his train one stop early and thus breaching the terms of his advance ticket.

And legend has it that a commuter from Leighton Buzzard used to alight at Watford, run along the platform, down the stairs, touch in with his oyster card - which provides cheap travel on London transport - before sprinting back and clambering back on board the train.

So confusing is the system that even the train operators occasionally display the wrong information. The website of First Capital Connect advertises an off peak single from St Albans to London as being more expensive than the Anytime ticket.

And booking a triangular journey is not easy. If you enter London to Liverpool, returning via Leeds, into the Trainline's website, you are greeted with the response: "No tickets are available, please refine your search".

Customers who do manage to book these kind of journeys have usually been clever with advance tickets. Buying even off-peak tickets can be expensive.

"Don't look for logic in the fares structure," says Mike Hewitson, head of policy at consumer watchdog Passenger Focus. "Most passengers think logically that if you travel further it will cost more. But there are a whole load of other factors outweighing that."


It's a mess, says the Financial Times journalist Matthew Engel who travelled around Britain by train for his book Eleven Minutes Late. "The fare system is both unjust and intolerably complex. If you are lucky and clever and have the time to tailor your journey to the way the system works then you can take advantage."

But most of us do not know where we will be travelling weeks ahead and are thus "penalised to an obnoxious extent". It's hard to imagine what tourists unfamiliar with the system make of it, he says.

One thing nearly everyone agrees on is that costs have risen since British Rail was privatised. However, the chance of any government deciding to fund the renationalisation of the railways is about as slim as every commuter on the 07.45 from Reading to London getting a seat.

Neither will subsidies bridge the gap - the government has said it wants to bring subsidy down nearer to 20% of the ticket price rather than the 30% it is today.

The hope is that the government's ongoing review of the fares system will come up with sensible tweaks and limits on prices. Even the train operators agree that there is a need for change. "Our fares system remains largely unchanged since privatisation and no longer properly reflects how people travel today," an Atoc spokeswoman says.

But railway enthusiasts like Doe worry that such a review may see an even greater shift to advance booking. "We need to fight for the walk-on system that is unique and vital to railways. Advance fares must not be allowed to dominate."

This article was published in January 2012


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  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I’m 18 and currently working In London, I have to travel from Kent and it costs me £400 a month. This is ridiculous, for one the service is terrible with at least one disruption a week. Plus it’s pricing people my age out of the opportunity to work in London. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford these prices, but others my age may not be as lucky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I now never use the trains whenever I have a choice. I am forced to commute by rail, and my ticket has risen by nearly 20% in 2 years. Trains are dirty and unreliable and no matter how much money gets thrown at the system, things don't seem to get better. The current system is broken, but I don't see any of the political parties with any ideas about how to fix it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    It Might help if we had the economies of scale the european countries do...

    passengers and frieght go through their contries and also on my short trips abroad they have double decker trains. Same length, same frequency of train, twice the capacity. I understand it might be hard to do in the UK with bridge heights but surely this must be the way forward rather than just looking at speed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Can anyone explain, whatever the cost per mile formula used, how come it was cheaper to buy a ticket from swansea to bristol (I was given !st class as well!) then bristol to redruth, than swansea to redruth as one trip. This was for the same journey on the same website (t******line). Not surprisingly i bought the 2 tickets and had free coffee for the 1st class bit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Nope the most expensive is the tourist trap at St Erth
    Winter train costs £4.00 return for 9 miles (0.44 per mile) and parking at £3.00 per day, in the summer its £5.00 to park and £7.50 return thats a massive 83p a mile???????


  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    A few months ago I travelled from Lancaster to Union Station in LA and it cost £4.00 for a return peak time ticket.

    Nice clean double decker train which was clean and comortable.

    Forgetting the cost for a moment, there is simply no equivalent in the UK. it just doesn't exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This article mentions the Heathrow Express from Paddington as the most expensive train per mile. This train takes 21 minutes and costs £19.00 pounds. Or you can use the normal train to Heathrow from Paddington, which takes 32 minutres and costs £9.10.
    That Heathrow Express is only there to rip off ignorant tourists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I'm a student from near Darlington and I study in Aberystwyth in Wales. I've got a young person's railcard, yet I very very rarely manage to find a return ticket for less than £80. Considering I search for these tickets six weeks in advance, I have a railcard and I am totally flexible by about five days, this is an absolute con. The trains are crowded, slow and uncomfortable. When'll this change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I live in the North of England near Preston, and had the choice today of either visiting an exhibition at Olympia London, or a similar exhibition at the RAI in Amsterdam. Options were train from Preston to Euston at £217 or a flight from Liverpool to Amsterdam at £43.
    Says it all really

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Deutsche Bahn offers a "BahnCard 100" which is unlimited travel on German railways for a year for €3800. That's about £3300 at current exchange rates, or about the cost of an annual ticket from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Oh, and the BahnCard 100 includes local transport in several cities...

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Remove subsidies. Charge companies for line rental. Remove unions. (Bob Crow earns more than £100K an year and live in a council house!)

    We live in a capitalist society, so let the market determine the price itself and we will see how successful or not it is. Seems to be working for air travel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I regularly travel from Bristol to Newcastle and I can never get the so called cheaper tickets. It's usually £126 which is the walk up price.

    In fact, when you book on-line, which is an automated system, you have to pay the booking and card fees whereas when you walk up you don't pay them so it's often cheaper - work that out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It would be something at least if the argument that they need fair increases to improve the service was true, the Go Ahead group which manage Southern and South East franchises keep upgrading their profit forecasts but my service has been cancelled, delayed, half the carriages, or fauly every signle journey this week. As to why it should be subsidised - its a public service thats why!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I live in St Albans and have a good reason why the train fares at peak times are so extortionate. Going by the amount of brand spanking new Mercs, BMWs and Astons parked in the (small) carpark and the hoardes of them who choose to park in the residential streets surrounding the station its simply that those commuters can afford it. Deal with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Sandown to Ryde works out at 56p per mile. Only a short journey but still expensive enough to beat all but the top 4 above.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    If you really want to be ripped off, use Manchester's hopeless Metrolink tram system. Brooklands to Timperley: 1 mile for £1.20. Plus of course the charge levied through the rates for this rolling disaster area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The problem with so-called "airline pricing" is that we have overcrowded rush hour trains which run near empty during daytime and evenings. If the airlines were in charge, they'd put up prices for peak travel and use it to subsidise off peak - people would switch to flexible working hours. Better use of a limited resource, and it would also open the railway to those who can't afford it currently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The most expensive train journeys in the UK are those made using Oyster cards. Oyster worked ever so well when it was only valid on tubes and buses but rarely works well on the national rail services running inside the London zones. I find I am in a perpetual state of claiming back back excessive charges which can include random £10+ excesses for journeys costing only £3.80.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    A system designed to deliberately confuse customers should not be allowed. A system that charges more for tickets when users actually want to use the trains (ie peak times) should not be allowed. It should never, ever, be cheaper to fly than it is to take the train. If it is then the company is clearly making out like a bandit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I was on an 8:30 train from Kings Cross with a £35 Advance Ticket. A French visitor to the UK sat opposite. He'd got off a plane that morning and bought a train ticket to York at the airport for over £100. The guard told him that his ticket was invalid on the "early" train and demanded a further purchase again over £100. The visitor clearly felt he was a victim of fraud..


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