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


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 778.

    Most expensive route maybe,Aberystwyth to Carmarthen. Standard off-peak return £58.50, for a 49 mile journey at £1.19 per mile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 777.

    I recently booked a series of journeys in advance for travel in March. For other parts of the journey, it was cheaper to go by coach. I'd do it all by coach if the times weren't awkward.

    £7 Blackpool - Preston - 19 miles

    £6 Blackpool - Manchester - 40 miles

    £13 Blackpool - Birmingham (change at Manchester Piccadilly)

    £44 Blackpool - Birmingham (change at Preston)


  • rate this

    Comment number 776.

    As for the cheapest, as a schoolboy in 1974, a single from Caterham to Whyteleafe in Surrey, a two-stop journey of ~2 miles, cost 4p for the full adult fare. The current fare is £1.90, or a 47-fold increase in 37 years...

  • rate this

    Comment number 775.

    Oldfield Park to Bath Spa, a distance of a mile or less, and a journey time of 2 mins offers an anytime fair of £2.90

  • rate this

    Comment number 774.

    I work the system as much as I can -- so far in the last 12 months, the cheapest ticket I have got is £1.80 (One pound 80 pence) for a child ticket travelling from London to Bath. The adult ticket was 6.25 for the same trip although I've done it for £4

  • rate this

    Comment number 773.

    I suggest all commuters register our disgust with the system - tweet George Osborne and see below -

    Take a look at

    Remember they need us as much as we need them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 772.

    Wonder how much could be saved if oyster went nationwide

    You can get to places cheap by train if you book in advance I can get from edinborough to London for £15

  • rate this

    Comment number 771.

    The railways are not run to provide a service to the public. They are run to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders and fatcat bosses.

    It's blindingly obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 770.

    Heard aviation fuel is not taxed. Don't give the government any ideas please

  • rate this

    Comment number 769.

    Can someone explain me how 'peak times' make sense on long distance trains?

  • rate this

    Comment number 768.

    TIcket most needed is a season ticket since almost every person a buying season ticket does it to go to work or study. They should be the cheapest in any fair system of ticketing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 767.

    I can't get my head around it, personally wouldn't be seen dead on a train, what an utterly wasteful infrastructure , the price per mile quite clearly show, without even taking convenience into account, that for most journeys the car is cheaper and (this bit really leaves my mouth open) why don't four people ion the platform, kitty their money together and hire a limousine to take them there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 766.

    Am I the only one whose season ticket went down this year? 5% cheaper in fact. The railway company ran a poor service last year, so therefore had to pay the penalty.

    Oh and it is worth shopping around using the national rail season ticket calculator- sometimes buying a ticket from a station further than you want to get on can be cheaper (compare Westbury and Castle Carey to London for example)

  • rate this

    Comment number 765.

    Has there ever been an in depth explanation as to why the costs of the rail system in the UK are so expensive? Is it poor management (by either the private company or government or both?)
    Fail to understand why Japan with a privately run rail system can be decades ahead of the UK, when they privatized their system only 6 years before the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 764.

    #753 MayaGold

    I would love to take a bus or coach on a long journey but I prefer to arrive at my destination without feeling like I need to vomit due to the careless driving and erratic braking of the coach drivers! I don't have this problem anywhere else and travel sickness aids do not help. How these drivers passed their coach driving test I will never know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 763.

    Using the trainline, I have managed to get train tickets down from a £77.80 Anytime Return on Scotrail to £13.60 by choosing a different train and travelling by East Coast. As a student, I can't afford to travel home at £77.80 a time, so without the trainline I wouldn't be able to get home during term time at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 762.

    4) Increase access to northern Britain.
    Birmingham is northern Britain?????????????????????????

  • rate this

    Comment number 761.

    Fares are beyond ridiculous, on a peak journey from SE London to London Bridge it costs around £9 per person, and with around 300 people on that one train £2700 goes to Southeastern. No way does it cost that much to have a train travel for up to 8 miles!

    In Australia I paid $40 to fly from Sydney to Melbourne!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 760.

    Pah, that is nothing - Covent Garden to Leicester Square....300 yards...£4.....about £23 per mile......That must be one of the most expensive journeys in the world by public transport!

  • rate this

    Comment number 759.

    Assuming you own a car anyway Tax,Insurance ,purchase cost,finance et al are fixed costs so in fact it it makes more sense to sweat the costs and use it as much as possible - let the car take the strain.

    This government and its ineffectual Quango (with its own outrageous Costs) are a joke.

    This like water is a pure monopoly and privitisations to far - look at the downstream costs/gravy train.


Page 1 of 39



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.