Why are trains in the UK so expensive?


Once again, soaring ticket prices are the order of the day for the already expensive train services in the UK. The reasons for this are varied: from the privatisation of the rail industry to the rising cost of infrastructure. 

Rail fares are set to increase again, raising many questions for travellers in the UK. (Photo by TTL Deez/Shutterstock)

The UK does not have fixed rates like other European countries such as France, which can result in flight tickets being cheaper than a regional train journey in the UK. 

Add in booking dates, off-peak and on-peak times and railcards and this all makes rail fares fluctuate. The question is, why?

Has British Rail been privatised?

British Rail has been privatised since 1993 when it ceased being a publicly owned company and was instead separated into 100 parts. The reason for this was to achieve a more efficient rail system since it led to more competition among different owners. However, not many objectives were met, such as more involvement from the owners and healthy competition, as the rivalry that arose from the privatisation of British Rail mostly caused a lack of accountability for the constantly changing prices. 

For instance, this new business model (called franchising) entailed private entities having the responsibility of running passenger services that coincided with the number of actual passengers significantly growing. 

Indeed, British Rail’s new private owners, like Railtrack for infrastructure and English Welsh & Scottish and Freightliner for ownership and operation of rail freight in Great Britain, had the job of handling rolling stock companies, meaning they had to deal with buying and leasing trains, as well as passenger services and infrastructure all around the country. 

These days, British Rail and its management is subdivided among multiple entities, which handle different sections of the business. Network Rail, which is a publicly owned company, manages most of the rail infrastructure in the UK, even if the majority of stations are leased by individual train operators. Furthermore, private train operating companies (TOCs) and private rolling stock leasing companies (ROSCOs) own most of the passenger services and the physical trains.

The task division of British Rail also saw another development in May 2021, when the William-Shapps Plan for Rail was published. This plan included all the proposed changes from the government to alter how UK railways are managed. 

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There are several proposals in the plan: 

  • The introduction of a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), as the single owner of the infrastructure and planner for timetables and fares.
  • A 30-year and five-year business plan to render the railway system more efficient.
  • Reforming the fares and introducing new purchasable products like flexible tickets.
  • Replacing the franchising business model with a different one, similar to Transport for London’s Overground and bus network, means the public sector will receive the revenue from fares.

Why are UK trains so expensive?

One of the main reasons the price of train tickets keeps rising is the privatisation of rail networks, with every private company striving to make a profit.

General secretary of the RMT Mick Lynch told the New Statesman: “Unlike trains in the rest of Europe, which tend to be publicly owned and have cheaper fares, most UK trains are privatised, which means that a profit has to be paid out, reducing the scope for fare cuts.”

The subdivision of the rail networks and various elements of them among private companies has created great differences and gaps in the sharing of revenue in the rail industry; therefore, private owners need to still think of making a profit by charging passengers more.

Other factors to keep in mind; even if the government’s Plan For Rail came into play, due to the rising cost-of-living crisis and infrastructure costs, it is unlikely to see any sort of positive movement in the train fare field, as many railway networks will still be privately managed. 

What do train prices depend on and how often do they increase?

There are a few factors that contribute to train ticket prices rising. Usually, on the first day of every year, rail fares augment in order to cover the maintenance costs. But, sometimes, due to external circumstances like inflation, it could go up throughout the year.

A higher increase was seen in March 2023, when rail fares rose by 5.9% compared with 2021.

The prices in England usually depend on the retail price index (RPI), which measures inflation during the year up until the month of July, which is around 12.3%. 

Therefore, the 5.9% increase was the minimum British Rail decided to propose in order to achieve a balance among the figures. Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper assured that the overall prices are being capped below inflation numbers “to help reduce the impact on passengers”.

In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, fares are determined by Translink, which does not rely on RPI. The operator has announced that starting from 13 March 2023, Ireland’s train prices will increase by 7%, due to inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. 

Both Scotland and Ireland usually match England’s developments; however, the Scottish government hasn’t made an announcement yet.

How do UK train fares compare with Europe?

The UK and Europe are both going through a significant increase in train ticket prices, with Europe seeing a 3% increase throughout 2022. 

The UK leads in one category: it is the country with the most expensive train tickets for single bookings on the day of travel, as well as being the second cheapest when it comes to booking in advance, with an average of around £29 a ticket

Norway is the second most expensive country, with an average of £25 for a single and £50 for a return. 

Even though the average price is not the lowest compared with Europe, since the lowest is in Poland, the difference between advanced tickets and on-the-day bookings is the most significant. 

In other parts of Europe, though, the time of booking does not make as big of a difference when compared with England. 

Even when booking in advance, Norway leads the way, being the most expensive country for both single and return tickets, with Austria, France, Belgium and Ireland respectively second, third, fourth and fifth. 

Overall, if we consider distance, the UK is in the fourth position among the priciest countries, with an average of £0.21 per kilometre, and Norway is still considered first.

[Read more: Germany’s €9 public transport ticket increases to €49]

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