Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Monday, 28 February 2011

Yesterday I wrote a column complaining about train companies who mug people that get on the wrong train by hoiking fares to a ridiculous degree.

I mentioned that, due to a valiant comedian called Tom Wrigglesworth who took a stand on a Manchester-London train a year or so ago, Virgin Trains changed their policy and no longer ask for different fares on board a train than the ticket would have been in advance.

Having just attempted to book myself on the London-Manchester journey with Virgin (for the upcoming UKIPT poker tournament in Manchester), I feel I should add an addendum. Since I was phoning so far in advance, I thought I’d ask the price of doing it first class - as I said in the piece, I managed to get a first class return to Nottingham for £22 each way (until I got hijacked by surprise rules on the way back). Always worth asking. For London-Manchester and back, they said it was £70 total. That seemed pretty reasonable.

Just to ensure I didn’t make the same mistake as last time, I explained on the phone that I might get a different return train from the one I’d booked, but it would still be off-peak, so could I get an open return. They said sure. That would be £400.

Four hundred pounds! I pointed out I’d still be getting an off-peak train, taking up a seat in a half empty carriage (or totally empty, like it was from Nottingham). Yep, makes no difference. They don’t do flexible off-peak returns. There’s just the one flexible fare: £400.

Obviously that means I won’t travel first class. Fine, what difference, it’s just a couple of hours on a train. But how can anyone have dreamed up that fare in the first place? Four hundred pounds, to travel two hours from Manchester to London? It would be cheaper to do it in a taxi! Genuinely, it would. If you were a family of four, it would be cheaper to BUY A CAR and drive yourself. No wonder the first class carriages are always empty. Why do they bother having them at all? Anyone who’s rich enough and mad enough to pay four hundred quid for a train ticket is probably too posh even to sit on a train, and would be carried up and down the M6 on a sedan chair. Also, the poor business thinking annoys me. They could get £90 out of me if they charged a reasonable price. Since they don’t, they won’t get anything.

Then again I know I’m going to get slightly screwed, even going standard. I can’t know exactly when I’ll be coming home, one never does with poker tournaments. Of course it’s cheaper to buy the ticket on the day you know you’re going home than to pay for an extra night or two in a hotel while you wait for the train you booked. That means poker players (or anyone who’s travelling without knowing exactly when they’ll be able to come back, like someone going to a meeting without a fixed end point) are always going to get stuck with the highest price of ticket, because of the companies’ refusal to have any “true price” for the journey, only a range of fares that get higher all the time. Well done Virgin for not charging extra punitive fares for paying on board - but if they get round not doing that by simply saying the price is crazily high at the station as well…. well, it doesn’t really help the travellers. And it certainly doesn’t help the general attempt to get people out of cars and aeroplanes, and onto the railways.

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Simon at 3:38 pm on February 28th, 2011

Re: Big Society 27.02.11. This week I sat next to a Lady (peer) who had sought to buy London - Newcastle retun rail tickets for herself and child 24 hours in advance and was quoted £900. They flew instead.

Nigel Cubbage at 3:54 pm on February 28th, 2011

Having been “stung” in an almost identical fashion on a journey from Manchester last year on Virgin, what infuriates me most of all is that the government have the gall still to call this “public” transport. It is nothing of the sort and ceased being so the moment it was put into private hands! The public service element of transport disappeared when Thatch and her cohorts first put the boot in.
There should be a campaign to return “public” transport to public hands.

JoeBlogs at 5:40 pm on February 28th, 2011

Last year, I had the gall to sit in first class for 6 whole minutes due to the train being overcrowded. The smug guard who took my details for the fine he imposed admitted it wasn’t possible to get on the standard class carriage as, once again, they’d not provided enough carriages. I didn’t hear anything about the £20 fine until 6 months later when I was summoned to court. I was faced with either paying the fine or paying a solicitor to help me reduce the fine. I chose the former. £238 for 6 minutes in first class. I wasn’t even given the option of paying the £20 fine which in itself would have been ridiculously unfair. I tried Citizen’s Advice and spoke to the court, but whilst everyone sympathised, it seemed this was perfectly legal. I’m leaving the country this year.

Bill Green at 7:34 pm on February 28th, 2011

Nigel, public transport ceased to be such when returned to private hands? It had no business being taken out of private hands in the first place. There’s a great bit in Benno Gitter’s autobiography about the disastrous nationalisation of the Argentine railways. £5 billion per year to Network Rail suggests the railways are still quite a bit public.

RomanticRecluse at 8:24 pm on February 28th, 2011

Victoria, could you please tell me what you think a “true price” for a London to Manchester train journey would be bearing in mind the following costs:

52 Pendolino trains for use on WCML services including 46 London-Manchester services per weekday mostly running at 20 minute intervals: £11m each (not including maintenance costs and track access fees)

WCML upgrade to allow more faster trains: £9bn (not including subsequent maintenance of hundreds of miles of track)

Staff in call centres (so you can buy tickets from home), on stations (such as Manchester Piccadilly which was recently modernised at a cost of £87m) and on trains plus people to train and monitor those staff: how many are needed and how much does someone need to pay them?

So what’s your “true price” and who’s paying?

Victoria Coren at 10:11 pm on February 28th, 2011

Well, the simplest answer (without trying to fit a spreadsheet & business plan into this little box) is that I think the “true price” for travelling from Manchester to London by train should be less than it costs to fly. And certainly less than it costs to take a taxi.

  If private rail companies can’t figure out how to make a profit by charging reasonable prices then they should never have bid for the takeover in the first place. Running up and down the route twice an hour with totally empty carriages, charging the sole idiot who sits down £60 or £101 or £400 for two hours, doesn’t sound like clever business thinking to me. Perhaps if they charged less, they’d be fuller and make more money? Somebody is not “strategizing” well. Or, if it’s actually IMPOSSIBLE to run these things at a profit without making it unaffordable for the average traveller, it should be run by a government department and subsidized, because affordable national transport is (like a regular postal service and refuse collection) something that we want in this country as part of what it means to be civilized - I’m sure we’d all prefer to pay a few more pence each year in income tax to subsidize the trains than £100 more every time we get on a train without having planned a month ahead.

palladian at 10:54 pm on February 28th, 2011

Hang on a minute, why aren’t you being comped either by PokerStars or by the tournament? Demand a helicopter or you’re staying at home!

kane gord at 8:06 am on March 1st, 2011

All private train travel is a rip off, to get to Darlington from London Kings Cross costs at least £80-90, and thats just standard ticket.

But I’ll give you an example of another way they rip you off. I once got my tickets from the fast ticket machines because I was running late, when the coupons came out I took two, it was’nt until I got on the flipping train that I realised I missed one of the tickets where i was in such a rush. I needed three coupons, two reservations and the main ticket, I was missing one of the reservation tickets. Although one of my tickets clearly had the time and seating number on it, I ended up having to pay an extra £115 on the spot. I was literally close to tears, I could have argued my case and not gone on the train but it was my first day at uni so why bother.

Rob F at 8:43 am on March 1st, 2011

Problem seems to be you’re not comparing like with like. To have any kind of flexibility on a business class air ticket from London to Manchester you’d be paying £414 ( and that constricts you to specific days still, not to mention the expense of getting to and from the city centre.

Basically the extra expense arises because you’re paying for the opportunity to sit in one of those empty seats you keep seeing.

If, heaven forbid, you get knocked out early and head home on Saturday or Sunday, I’d suggest using the Weekend 1st option, which is a £15 supplement to a regular ticket.

But you have my sympathy, I did a similar journey each week last year and it cost me a fortune.

Jon MW at 8:54 am on March 1st, 2011

Actually Vicky you have got it right.

It IS impossible for a train company to be run profitably, nobody has ever made money from running the railway - this is pretty much why it’s ridiculous to not have them in public ownership.

There is still a lot of waste, inefficiency and ineptitude in place but however well they did it - they’d still lose money without a government subsidy.

MDW at 9:42 am on March 1st, 2011

They’re a joke - I work in the automotive industry and it makes me smile when I hear a fat politician saying people should get out of theirs cars and use the trains.

Yes chunky, I’ll get out of my car when I drive to Chester - my car, my own little private bubble where I can sing along to music, stop whenever I like and go direct to where I need to go - and what I’ll do is get the train, it will cost me twice as much, drop me 5 miles from where I need to go and I’ll probably have to sit next to half drunk poker player (or worse a politician or a Welsh ;-) )

MikeR at 10:04 am on March 1st, 2011

Have you tried taking a coach to get there? I hadn’t been on one for years but recently got a Bath to London National Express return for £25. Reasonably comfortable and a lot less stops than the train. Newer ones even have wi-fi. You can’t eat hot food or drink alcohol on board though… don’t know how important that might be to you…

Chris - Campaign Manager in waiting at 12:42 pm on March 1st, 2011

Lovely to see such good honest common sense stated so well. I am convinced there is a place for you, indeed a desperate need in the Commons… Tough, intelligent, eloquent, fair minded and not without the occasional vice or two.. but are you prepared to fiddle your travel expenses and do you have a second home in the country somewhere? VC4MP!!

John at 2:44 pm on March 1st, 2011

I wonder if ‘Dick Turpin Railways’ will be a topic for OMG Peaches?

Dan at 8:30 pm on March 1st, 2011

Coaches certainly aren’t guaranteed to be a comfortable journey (though not always bad) and they’re a lot slower.  It’s such a great shame most spontaneous use of the trains is beyond most people.

lee at 11:54 pm on March 1st, 2011

thought u were great on 6 music,  if u’re in mids have 2 buy u lunch x

Ronnie at 4:51 pm on March 2nd, 2011

Ahh the trains! Such nostalgia! I remember back in the day when blah blah blah oh wait! I’m 27 they have always been rubbish!
MDW, I have to agree with you. Why should I pay more money to wait for a late train that isn’t going to drop me off at my destination? and also have to sit with those strange people who catch trains!?! (no offence I will explain later)
The last train journey I did was Evesham - Birmingham. In the car this journey takes c.40 mins depending on traffic etc. On the train it took nearly 2 hours, and I had to change at Worcester, and the journey from Worc - Evesham we were joined by 4 wonderful chaps who were discussing their recent release from her majesty’s pleasure and what they intended to do with their time.
One comfortable journey :)

Autismawaft at 7:47 pm on March 2nd, 2011

“I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble. You got me home, and, uh… a little late. A couple days. But, uh… I’m a little wiser, too. Me, too. Happy holidays. Same to you. Happy Thanksgiving, Neal. Give my love to the family. Maybe I’ll meet them someday. Say hello to Marie for me. Yeah. So…OK. And you have a happy Thanksgiving. Hey, you know it. So long. I like—I like me. My wife likes me. At the very least, the absolute minimum, you’ve got a woman you love to grow old with, right? I’m spending too much time away. I haven’t been home in years. I haven’t been home in years. I haven’t been home in years. Del, what are you doing here? You said you were going home. What are you doing here? I, uh… I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years”

Gets me every time. HILARIOUS!

Steve T at 11:41 pm on March 2nd, 2011

We spend a fair bit of time in Bavaria where you can buy a Bavarian ticket that is valid for up to five people (on regional trains, rather than the ICE trains), anywhere in Bavaria (and Salzburg) until 3 the next morning. It costs, wait for it, 28 euros.

The other refreshing difference between Munich and the UK is there are no barriers onto the platform, no conductors. Occasionally there will be an undercover inspector on the train checking tickets, and they will fine if you travel without a ticket, but they seem to cope without treating their customers like children.

Norman at 1:02 am on March 3rd, 2011

Ticket pricing’s crazy, you’re right.
Your “true price” - in what sense?
A.  Actual cost of running the train…
Off-peak should cost more as fewer passengers share the costs of a mostly empty train. 
(Train companies do get away with charging more on peak time trains for non-optional business/job related trips.)
B. Value of the service to the passengers…
It is reasonable to charge more for quicker journeys, punctuality, and comfort.  Passengers should pay less if they don’t get a seat or the train runs late.  A taxi should be cheaper than a seat on an express train, but not for standing on a slow train.
C. Environmental..
Surely a taxi is better for the environment than running a train carriage for one or two passengers & the train still runs with an empty carriage, not the taxi.

Dave Roberts at 11:30 am on March 3rd, 2011

Hi Victoria, this is maybe a tad incongruous here, I realise that, but it seemed as good a way as any to send you this link. Okay, it might look like it’s about football, but it’s not, I promise. It’s actually about fathers and daughters and the things that bring them together - and how they can drift apart. Having read and loved your book, I had a hunch (okay, a hope rather than a hunch) that you might enjoy it (okay read and not hate it rather than enjoy it).

Auoda at 2:29 pm on March 3rd, 2011

I have a secret… but I’m willing to share.
While booking my usual return trip to my home town from my new town, which has recently gone up from £25 to £39, I realised that I could buy two returns, one for the first part of the journey (halfway there) and the other continuing the journey for £20 in total. Exactly the same journey, no changes needed, the one ticket stops at a certain station (Leamington Spa if you must know), I stay on the train, and my second ticket kicks in for the rest of the journey. They’re not advance fares, just normal open returns. Not sure why this works, guessing it’s something to do with ‘zones’, but I’ve done it for a load of journeys now and it saves about £20 on average.
If you have time to check against the stations you’ll pass anyway…it’s worth it!

David R at 3:43 pm on March 3rd, 2011

(Has a nice train-related chorus, with roughly applicable lyrics.)

Clark Gwent at 11:23 pm on March 3rd, 2011

Aren’t you going to give the racist MDW the rough edge of your tongue then?

David B at 12:32 pm on March 4th, 2011

“it should be run by a government department and subsidized”

I don’t remember British Rail being all that hot, and we already subsidise the railways to the tune of £5 BILLION a year. I think that’s 1.5p on basic income tax alone.

While it’s temping to look at places like Switzerland and dream of such a service here, they don’t have anything like the density of stations that we do, nor do they particularly have a great frequency of service.

And as far as undergrounds go, things like the Paris Metro might seem wonderful at 1 Euro a pop, until you learn that it’s subsidised by the Paris taxpayers at the rate of 7 Euros PER TICKET!

I’m not defending the £22/£400 disparity, but until we start charging more in line with its true economical cost, trains will always be the more expensive, option.

Rob King at 5:48 pm on March 4th, 2011

I did want to write a scathing note on the ineffectual investment in public infrastructure during the past 30 years, but I started, realised the futility, and went and played poker instead.
Currently winning 3 different SnGs.

The Tim at 8:02 pm on March 4th, 2011

To digress a little, when are you going to be signing copies of your new book?

Victoria Coren at 9:04 am on March 5th, 2011

Hmm, good point, there isn’t anything formal arrangement. Maybe I should ask the publishers to sort something out? In the meantime, anyone who’s in Manchester next Friday night, I’ll be at the G Casino playing the UKIPT poker tournament (from about 4pm) and happy to sign books there. But I won’t have any with me…

Alex at 3:38 pm on March 5th, 2011

You mean we’ve got to buy our own books? That’s scandalous. Wish we could have you for a book signing at the Smiths branch I work at ;-) BTW, I love 10 O’clock Live which my favourite Charlies, Skelton and Brooker and the marvellous Mitchell, are involved with - any chance you could oust Lauren Laverne and make it a dream team?

Victoria Coren at 5:01 pm on March 5th, 2011

Hi Alex - that’s very kind but I think Lauren’s great!

RomanticRecluse at 9:53 pm on March 6th, 2011

It’s not impossible to run a profitable and affordable railway but it’s very difficult because costs tend to be fixed and long-term whilst revenue can vary.  Companies can’t publish a timetable and then cancel off-peak trains because no-one booked a seat or add trains because lots of people suddenly decide to go to an event in Nottingham.  The railway, private or public, has to plan ahead.

I’d like a nationalised railway funded from taxation but in 1992 14m people voted for a party that privatised the railway and said it would cut taxes.  Safety costs money, good service costs money, a good society costs money.  Who’s paying?  The banks which supposedly gambled away the public’s money have paid 50% tax on bonuses over £25,000 (on top of other taxes).  How about a tax on poker winnings?

Victoria Coren

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