What is split ticketing and how can it save me money on train tickets?

·5-min read
Fares fair? Technology can help travellers save money (Simon Calder)
Fares fair? Technology can help travellers save money (Simon Calder)

Dividing a rail journey into separate segments can save a fortune on train tickets. As ticket-splitting becomes mainstream, will anyone ever pay full price ever again for rail travel?

What is split ticketing?

The practice of exploiting anomalies in Britain’s extremely complex rail fare structure to reduce the cost of train travel. On many journeys, buying two or more segments is cheaper than a through ticket.

From Shrewsbury to Liverpool, the through Anytime fare is £29.90. The journey requires a change of trains at Chester. And if you buy separate tickets for each leg, you save exactly £10.

That is a simple example of ticket splitting at the connecting station. Yet the technique also works where the passenger stays on the same train.

For example, the Great Western line from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads has a walk-up Anytime fare for rush-hour trains of £115 (for a journey of just 100 minutes). But you can save over £43 by splitting tickets for the journey at Didcot Parkway.

In-the-know travellers have long known about this particular “Didcot dodge”, and about services such as TrainSplit.com. But increasingly passenger-friendly technology means that neither local knowledge nor complicated transactions are necessary.

A mainstream rail travel app, run by a subsidiary of SNCF (French Railways), now automatically shows the benefits of split ticketing. The default of the Loco2 app (and website) is to offer split tickets where beneficial to the passenger. And countless journeys in Britain offer savings to anyone canny enough to check.

Is ticket-splitting legal?

Yes. The only requirement is that the train stops to set down and pick up passengers at the intermediate station.

On that London-Bristol route, it is important to realise that only half the trains qualify for the split. If you catch the wrong one, and it swooshes through lovely Didcot Parkway at 125mph, you will be travelling without a valid ticket.

GWR says: “You could be issued with an Unpaid Fare Notice, a Penalty Fare Notice or be interviewed under caution.” It will be expensive and unpleasant, and many people who have tried to split the ticket have encountered problems when they haven’t scrupulously obeyed the rules.

You have mentioned Anytime fares. But I can plan ahead. Anything in it for me?

If you can be flexible and book an Advance ticket, that London-Bristol trip can cost just £16 one-way from GWR – no intermediary necessary.

But for more complicated journeys, Loco2 can help cut costs. It gives the example of a trip between Swansea and Perth. According to National Rail, the fare is £228 regardless.

But the app will divide the trip into segments for which advance tickets are available – and save £100 by stipulating separate tickets: one to Crewe, another to Edinburgh and a third to Perth.

This is not quite comparing like with like; these tickets are for specified trains, as opposed to the fully flexible Anytime ticket. But if you are comfortable to lose flexibility, the reward is substantial.

What do I need to do?

The app should do the legwork for you. If you decide to go ahead, a typical splitting app will make the appropriate ticket purchase for you, charging a booking fee. Loco2’s charge for its work is £1.50 on tickets up to £100, and an oddly inflated £6 for more expensive purchases.

If you object to such fees, there is nothing to stop you getting free advice and booking your travel independently.

Either way, you must collect the tickets, either on your smartphone where available, or on paper from a station machine.

What if I am travelling through the rush hour but out the other side?

You can save in terms of timing, because it is possible to split a journey which crosses the peak/off-peak time boundary to obtain the benefit of the off-peak portion. From Hitchin in Hertfordshire to Brighton, the 8.56am departure switches from peak to off-peak at London St Pancras – and splitting the journey saves a fiver on the £40.70 through ticket.

Why are fares so irrational?

When British Rail was broken up and rail privatisation began in 1995, the fares regime was stipulated by the 415-page Ticketing & Settlement Agreement (TSA). It is a document intended to protect the interests of travellers. The TSA insists that each of the 2,500 stations in Britain must have a fare to all of the others. In the course of setting those prices, anomalies are inevitable.

But it was written long before the budget airlines transformed our attitude to travel pricing – accepting the principle that the most in-demand services will be expensive, and that the more flexible you are, the more you can save. The TSA also pre-dated the smartphone and the many travel blessings it provides, including easy access to ticket-splitting apps.

Virgin Trains, whose West Coast main line franchise is shortly to end, is promising its own app to deliver savings it estimates at £1bn a year.

That would be great for passengers, surely?

Fare revenue for UK rail is approaching £11bn a year. As apps proliferate and expose the savings (or, if you prefer, reveal the rip-off through fares), earnings from tickets will be hit. And taxpayers, many of whom never go near a train, will not want to make up the difference.

The present system relies on some travellers paying more than they need – by failing to take advantage of beneficial splits. Everyone knows it is fundamentally flawed, not fit for purpose and ripe for reform.

So why not overhaul it?

But successive governments have failed to reform the system. The reason: in the course of eradicating anomalies, switching to pricing based on one-way legs and removing the “cliff-edge” border between peak and off-peak prices, many fares will fall.

But some tickets will cost more. People who find the cost of their weekly commute or weekend excursion has risen by 10 per cent will make far more noise than those whose journeys are 10 per cent cheaper.

Shrewd travellers who split tickets will not only save money – they will also help to accelerate the progress of the necessary root-and-branch reform.

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