5 steps to improving your train journeys

June 25th, 2010 by J-P Leave a reply »

Travelling by train in the UK is an unpredictable experience, and one that some people understandably begrudge paying for. The cost of private transport has fallen faster than any other form of transport, dropping 13% in real terms since 1997 and leaving train and coach fares relatively much more expensive.

But your next train journey—to London, elsewhere in the UK, or even Europe—could be made cheaper, less stressful, more comfortable and easier to organize if you follow any one of these five simple steps.

  1. Buy a Network Railcard. If you don’t already have some sort of railcard, you can get 1/3 off most off-peak fares in the south-east (Wikipedia’s webpage on the railcard contains a link to the official map of the relevant routes) with a one-off payment of £25: this will pay for itself after four return journeys from Oxford to London. It also covers journeys to stations as far afield as Worcester, Bedford, Colchester, Folkestone, Brighton and Weymouth.
  2. Send off for a free BiTE discount card. Railway food is pretty expensive, but this at least cancels out the 20% or so markup that companies charge you to buy food from them in a train station. With a BiTE card you can get cheaper food from many station outlets, including Upper Crust, Real Pubs and Delice de France. It’s probably healthier and certainly more sustainable to take pre-prepared food with you, but if you’re famished in Furze Platt or have hunger pangs in Pangbourne then you might as well get 1/5 of the price refunded when you cave in.
  3. Use a better online train times service, Train Times. This is a labour of love by a geek who found all the existing train times websites almost deliberately hard to use. It sits on top of National Rail’s own website (originally appalling to use, now merely annoying) and provides you with clear information including the full timetable for trains. If you own a smartphone (and I never thought I wanted one until I got one: and it changed my life) then you can use the mobile version of Train Times on the go. It saved huge amounts of stress on our last journey by letting us know exactly how long we were off schedule to make an eight-minute change.
  4. Split your tickets at regional boundaries. It’s the rail industry’s biggest secret, that if you buy a ticket from (say) Oxford to Cardiff from National Rail, you’re actually buying it through another middleman company, which allegedly “sorts out” for you any purchasing problems that Oxford to Swindon is one rail franchise and Swindon to Cardiff a different one, and pockets a massive percentage of your price for the privilege. But if you arrange the two journeys yourself, even through TheTrainLine itself, you can keep that difference: sometimes almost half of the cost of your tickets! The very nice man behind Train Times maintains a list of split tickets people have found through trial and error, Money Saving Expert has spotted it and there’s a new ticket-splitting website—warning: I haven’t tried it yet!—that claims to be able to split journeys on your behalf.
  5. Plan your foreign travel with the help of The Man in Seat 61. Like Train Times, this website is a labour of love and the information is freely available—although the book to accompany the website deserves an honourable mention, and there are adverts on the site—but it contains encyclopaedic knowledge of how to make train journeys throughout Europe, with extra information on Africa, the Middle East, and further afield. Train travel in Europe is always going to be more expensive than plane travel&x#2014;which, while utterly unsustainable and damaging to the environment and our future, is protected and subsidized by international tax agreements—but if you’re going to go on a relaxing holiday, what better way to begin it than with a trip that leaves you feeling rested?

We’ve used all these resources in the past, and they’re indispensible whenever we make a trip. Now I only ever visit my parents in those twin hubs of international mystery—Barcelona and Preston—by train, and we’ve seen plenty of the UK’s rail routes, using them out of preference these days. And we’ve enjoyed it a lot more than before we worked out all these tricks. And if you’re an avid reader of Sustainable Witney, then you’ll already know that, if you’re still stuck, you can always ask for travel advice in the Sustainable Witney forum and people will try to help you as best they can.

Train travel has a bad reputation in the UK, but I think it’s to a large extent undeserved; I hope that if you follow this five-step plan next time you plan your journey you’ll think that too.

(Edited 11.7.10 to reflect seat61.com’s sponsorship/advertising.)



  1. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the link to traintimes.org.uk, and the split tickets link. You do need to be organised and order those in advance though – either picking them up at Oxford or getting them sent in the post.

    And I can recommend Man In Seat 61 as well – I used his site to organise a sleeper through to Munich and back.

    Personal experience is the key I think, and it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it.

    • J-P says:

      Personal experience is the key I think, and it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it.

      I think that’s absolutely it: things that don’t need “practice”, like the Bite card, you should get straight away as there’s no disadvantage to not getting them. Other things like getting a Network Railcard should only be done when there’s a clear use for them, otherwise it’s a lot of effort for nothing more than feeling virtuous! I only ever renew my railcard when I’m buying tickets for a network-zone journey, for example.

      Kate’s a past master at splitting tickets: I reckon if people aren’t sure about it they should ask on the forums, although you’re right about booking in advance. Most public-transport deals penalize last-minute travellers, though, which isn’t necessarily to excuse the fact…!

  2. Kevin says:

    “…and there’s a new ticket-splitting website—warning: I haven’t tried it yet!”

    I need to be in Sheffield next month so thought I’d feed it into this ticket-splitting website. It gave Oxford-Banbury-Brum-Derby-Sheffield as the splitting points.

    The best price I could get for a day return with Advance Singles is £43.00.

    I’m not a fan of advance tickets, particularly for the return journey, unless they’re so cheap I don’t mind taking the risk and just buying the single on the day if I miss the right train.

    The Off-Peak Day Return is £64.40, my preferred option.

    The split journey return tickets come out at…

    £ 5.00 Oxford-Banbury
    £16.70 Banbury-Brum
    £14.60 Brum-Derby
    £ 8.80 Derby-Sheffield

    Which tots up to £45.10, just a couple of quid more than Advance Singles but with the benefit of being valid for any train on the day, and I can leave ordering them til the night before I set off and pick them up from the ticket machine in Oxford on the day.

    AND, I could choose to leave before the off-peak period and just buy the first split journey at the anytime price. That would be an extra £4.70 for the Oxford-Banbury section.

    Result 😮
    (didn’t work too well for another one I fed in going south though)

    • J-P says:

      but with the benefit of being valid for any train on the day

      I’ve not used splitting to make things more convenient before: that’s a new one on me. We typically split westward journeys (Cardiff splitting at Swindon saves us around 20 quid on a 45-quid return) or northward ones (Preston splitting at Wolverhampton, I think, saves 20 quid on a nearly 70-quid return).

      And going south from Oxford? What on earth is there to do that for? There’s only Reading and Basingstoke before you’re suddenly in the sea :)

      (A friend who spotted this article says he thinks splityourticket could actually be a bit out of date, so do check the journeys out with thetrainline.com.)

  3. J-P says:

    Another correction: The Man in Seat 61 is no longer actually not-for-profit. But the data there is still freely available.

  4. Kate Griffin says:

    My latest challenge: work out a way of getting from London to Edinburgh for less than £100! A super off-peak return is currently £108.30 and I’ve found no way of doing it any cheaper. I’ve tried splitting at Doncaster, York, Newcastle and Berwick-on-Tweed, but they all make it more, not less expensive.

  5. Kevin says:

    The cheapest I can make it is £101.50 using Advance singles. For the extra flexibility the additional £6.80 seems worth it.

    The splits I tried just made it more expensive too.

  6. Kevin says:

    Me again. Thinking out of the carriage, you can get there for less than £50 by coach…


    But it takes more than twice as long!

    • J-P says:

      The second worst coach journey I have ever made was on an overnight coach to Edinburgh via – as always – bloody Birmingham.

      We arrived at 8am, and to deal with the stress of the journey one of my co-travellers made me drink a pint of some sort of IPA. So awful was the previous twelve hours that it actually helped.

  7. Kevin says:

    While we’re looking at alternatives, the cheapest flight I could find was £83 return from Luton to Edinburgh.

    Need a return to and from the airport of course, which for the train, using a network rail card, is an additional £13.45 after 10am or £20.40 before.

    Much less flexibility on times with the flight, and I’m guessing, but it looks like there’s probably little if any time advantage.

    I hadn’t really thought about it before but the ease of ticket purchase and the flexibility on departure time is quite a plus for the train :o)

  8. Kevin says:

    Here’s an example of when Advanced Tickets are worth trying.

    I’ve got to go to ” the big smoke” tomorrow so we’re all going and tying it in with a couple of other things. The total cost (with railcards) of Advance Singles there and back for three people is £22.80.

    I bought them yesterday to travel tomorrow, and will pick them up at the station when we get there.

    Advance Singles are always linked to a particular train so if you miss it you need to buy another ticket. It’s unlikely, but even if we miss the one out tomorrow, or the one back on Friday, at that price for three people it’s worth the risk.

    Oh, and there’s a split ticket option for Oxford to Brighton – Reading and Gatwick… (even before the split a return to Brighton is under £25 with a railcard and gives the option to travel through London).

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