Our rail system is broken – but this new money-saving gimmick is not the answer

·7-min read
Avanti West Coast's superfare
Avanti West Coast's superfare

Never has boarding a train to London felt so sweet. As the 09:01 from Preston departed for the capital I totted up my savings. My seat, booked a week ago via Avanti West Coast's new Superfare ticketing system, had cost £22 one-way – the cheapest I’ve ever purchased in the six years I’ve been making regular journeys between the two cities.

By using the system to book two single fares for a daytrip I’d saved 60 per cent of the cost of the cheapest off-peak return – which, a week ago, would have cost £110. If I’d chosen to book advance single tickets for the same services I’d have forked out £174 and if I’d needed total flexibility, an anytime return would have set me back an eye-watering £378 if I’d booked a week in advance.

But there’s a catch – there’s always a catch – to the new money-saving hack I’d just taken advantage of: I’d only found out which train I was catching 24 hours before departure.

The scheme has launched as a trial, running until the end of July. “It is aimed at those who do not normally opt for the train and who can be more flexible with their journeys,” said an Avanti spokesperson.

Anyone who wants to make the most of the savings has to be very laissez-faire with their travel plans indeed. Following a simple booking process, customers enter their departure station (currently only available from Preston, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street) and the date they wish to travel to London. They are then presented with a choice of time slots – morning (07:00 – 11:59), afternoon (12:00 – 16:59) and evening (17:00 – 23:00).

No matter which they choose, the single tickets cost a flat fee (Preston, £22; Manchester, £20; Liverpool Lime Street, £25; Birmingham, £12). Then the wait begins – the day before departure travellers find out which service they have been booked a seat on. “Tickets are allocated to quieter services within each respective time slot…We match them to an empty seat and give them their departure time as well as a reservation,” confirmed Avanti.

The fine print continues: tickets are not refundable or exchangeable, group bookings are limited to nine and there’s no guarantee you’ll be seated together and you must book between 21 and seven days before travel.

The scheme is hoping to attract students in particular.

A gaping hole in availability of Superfare tickets at weekends would present a major barrier. “There is a limited number of Superfare tickets,” said an Avanti spokesperson, “and tickets won’t show in the system if they are sold out, or if there is major engineering works or strikes.” My research showed no Superfare tickets available for the next three weekends, and blacked out dates either side of Easter.

Weekdays seem to be when these tickets are most readily available, but here lies another issue with the scheme. It simply doesn’t work for anyone that relies on these services the most – commuters, with meetings to attend and deadlines to hit. Matthew on Twitter put it bluntly: “​​[It would make it ]Very difficult to plan your life… [It] would be great but I’m afraid we all have commitments to meet.”

On the platform at Preston I spoke to one smartly dressed gentleman on his way south for a business meeting – he’d paid “way over £100” two weeks ago to book his seat on the same train I’d been allocated 24 hours prior, having paid just £22.

It’s also tricky for young families. Keeley Cafferkey, a new mum from Preston, wouldn’t risk putting her travel plans down to chance, no matter the savings. “It’s just not practical,” she said. “You couldn’t guarantee timings for meals or that you’d even have enough time to see the sites – it’s a lot of uncertainty for a family day out. I wouldn’t want to be getting a baby on a late train home either – and there’s every chance that could happen.”

The train pulled into London at 11:12 – I had an afternoon and evening to burn until my allocated journey home at 20:33. But it had been impossible to make any meaningful reservations without knowing my schedule in advance. Those on a minibreak might have more fruitful results. Jake Oates and his wife from Preston agree: “If we were doing a kid-free weekend in London with nothing planned and it meant we could do it cheap, I don’t see any issues. But it’s much more complicated than just ‘you can save some money’.”

My return train was busier than my morning journey – but for the first time the free Avanti’s Wi-Fi worked a charm and having a seat reservation numbed nightmares of previous trips spent sitting on the vestibule floor. I’d also saved a huge portion of my monthly travel expenses. Small wins, but with so many snags the system is not the panacea Avanti might have come up with in the race to fix Britain’s railways.

Four things that really could transform rail travel in the UK

Fare review

“There's no doubt that simplicity sells – a clear and transparent fares system will restore the consumer trust and confidence that the rail network has lost,” says Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61.

“Indeed, since British Rail days surveys have revealed that people think rail fares are expensive. But curiously, when those same people were asked what they thought these expensive fares actually were, they quoted prices that were significantly higher – which suggests there is a lot to gain from a transparent easily-understandable fares system.

“And we need to replace the current chaotic pricing with a logical and consistent pricing structure where opportunities for split ticketing are no longer endemic.”

European-inspired incentives

Worthwhile incentives that deliver consistent value to everyone, without loopholes, have proved popular on the continent – the UK could gain a lot by following suit. For example, in Germany, Deutsche Bahn is launching a €49-a-month (£43) pass that offers unlimited travel on the rail network, and it’s available to anyone. It follows a successful trial last summer when the same passes were offered for €9, prompting a surge in rail travel across the country. The passes will now be permanent fixtures and work out at around £1.40 a day.

Germany, Deutsche Bahn is launching a €49-a-month (£43) pass that offers unlimited travel on the rail network - AF/GETTY
Germany, Deutsche Bahn is launching a €49-a-month (£43) pass that offers unlimited travel on the rail network - AF/GETTY

Return to retro

Ticket offices and maps would help inspire confidence and travel ideas, believes Daniel Elkan, founder of SnowCarbon

“In the UK ticket offices have been derided as a waste of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ability to talk to someone in person about the best type of fare for a journey is hugely beneficial and saves the traveller money.

“For some reason in the UK, the map of the national rail network was withdrawn from public use. Maps are excellent for both planning journeys and for inspiring them. When you can see how stations link up, and where it’s possible to get to, rail-travel ideas flourish.”

Reliability matters

According to the latest statistics, the proportion of rail services reaching their destination within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival is at the lowest since records began. At the start of 2023, train cancellations soared to a record level, with 4.5 per cent of services cancelled. In an ideal world our rail system would be reliable and punctual. But in current circumstances customers need reassurance that if plans collapse, they won’t be left out of pocket.

Earlier this month, The Telegraph revealed plans that the Government has discussed raising the minimum delay threshold for repayments following late-running trains from 15 minutes to half an hour. In order to regain travellers’ trust, systems like these are essential, and shouldn’t be stripped back, if anything they should be simplified and made consistent across the board.