Do UK commuters pay the highest rail fares in Europe?

Published: 16th Aug 2011

Train fares have become topical once again following today's release of inflation figures.

With the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rising to 4.4 per cent, passengers will be faced with average season ticket fare rises of eight per cent.

Several newspapers reported anger among travellers at the increased costs of commuting. A much-quoted claim made by some is that commuters here in the UK already face the highest rail fares in Europe.

Full Fact took a closer look at the figures.

Headline Figures

The most comprehensive data available for assessing comparative rail prices in Europe comes from research conducted by Steer Davies Gleave, prepared for the Passenger Focus group. It was published in February 2009 and is thus not a precise representation of today's figures.

The study compared prices among eight different EU countries: The UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Results were broken down into short, middle and long distance travel and also included data regarding average travel time and frequency of services.

Taking, for example, a return fare travelling to and from London, and comparing this to comparable journeys to 'principal commuter cities' in the other seven countries, UK commuters were indeed shown to be paying the most.*

*The graph for restricted fares (for instance off-peak deals) is comparable with lower prices in all countries.

The case for season tickets shows an even stronger indication that British commuters pay more. The cost of an annual season ticket covering long-distance travel can exceed £3000, the equivalent of over £1000 more expensive than the next dearest country: the Netherlands.

In the case of monthly and weekly season tickets, again the UK shows a higher average price tag than the other EU countries, although the gulf in prices narrows as the season ticket length is reduced.

 

Finer details

So far the figures do not bode well for UK commuters preparing to purchase their next travel ticket. However a closer look reveals that the UK system offers more flexibility than in other countries, meaning that astute travellers can potentially secure cheaper deals than are available to many Europeans.

One of the principal tactics available to British travellers is to buy tickets in advance, which normally allows cheaper purchases the earlier the tickets are bought. The graph below illustrates how the price of a long-distance single ticket to the capital can vary in price.

As can be seen, while the maximum fee for passengers is higher in the UK than the other seven countries, the cheapest available fare in the UK is in fact the cheapest in Europe at just over £10, compared to German commuters who pay the equivalent of around £70 for a comparable ticket.

The case is very similar even if the second city is considered instead of the principal city — in the UK's case looking at the cost of travel to Birmingham. Top-rate tickets to Birmingham are broadly in line with other European second cities, but the UK still boasts the cheapest or near-cheapest rates at the best available discount.

The bigger picture

Finally, the report also compiles data on rail travel other than fares, such as the speed and frequency of trains. Although the UK has some of the most expensive prices, it also has the most frequent services on and off peak.

However, UK passengers also endure longer commuting times over the same distances due to slower services around London and Birmingham.

Conclusion

The relative cost of travel obviously varies hugely depending on the distance of travel, the timing of payment, the length of season ticket and whether a return is purchased.

In general, UK train fares are higher than the other seven countries in the study, but at the same time canny customers can get among the best deals on the continent if they plan far enough in advance.

On top of this, UK commuters can enjoy more convenient waiting times due to more frequent services, as long as they are prepared to spend a little longer on the train.

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All graphs and charts are sourced from the Passenger Focus report.


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