Okay, so the headline doesn’t portray an entirely accurate picture of the latest release of train fares in the UK.
According to the BBC the latest price release represented a 3.4% average increase on fares across the UK,.
Let’s get one thing straight, train fares are always going to rise, for the foreseeable future at least. The cost of maintaining the railways has increased, demand for train services has increased, and consumers are demanding a more punctual service.
If you take just those three things into account and still seriously expected train prices were going to fall then it’s fair too say you may be slightly foolish.
This 3.4% figure is also extremely crude; there are over 2,500 stations in the UK, meaning there are well over 6 million potential routes for a train passenger. These routes vary greatly in their distance, speed, flexibility, business and not least, service provider.
I’ve taken a very different approach to reviewing the difference in fare prices between 2017 and 2018, instead of focusing on the apparent disgrace of the increase in cost, I’ve looked deeper and found a story that appears to suggest the train fares may have just in fact got fairer.
North West v North east
I stumbled across the potential for this story after comparing the visualisation to the left, which shows the % increase in the cost of an anytime return into London, with the visualisation on the right, which shows the cost per mile of an anytime return into London from 2017.
It’s quite evident, just from these two views, that there hasn’t just been a blanket rise in train fares across the UK. Fig 2. shows us that there appears to have been a price freeze in the North West, whilst figure 1 shows us that historically these areas represent those with the greatest cost per mile, specifically areas in North Wales and around Liverpool.
You could argue these views are still crude; train fares are not linear to a single destination, if I live say in Leicester, which is ~86 miles into its London terminus and an adult fare is £157 for an anytime return (that is true in 2017), then I wouldn’t expect someone that lives roughly double the distance away, say, York, to pay double the price, I would expect them to pay more but at a slower decreasing rate as the distance gets greater.
The views above do not make it easy too compare the cost of those journeys of a similar length, so lets do this differently, lets plot our distance in miles against cost per mile during 2017, with the % change on colour (as shown below in figure 3).
This view shows exactly the same detail as the view in figure 2, but shows the disparity in growth against fares of a similar distance much more clearly.
Here you can see that the lighter colours (lower increase), appear, certainly in most cases, to lie above those darker colours (higher increase) at a similar length of travel. Given that our y-axis represents cost per mile of fares from 2017 this suggests that journeys that were cheaper in 2017 are being bought closer to the more expensive fares from 2017.
The Fare Setters
The divide between fare growth in the West and East points points us towards the two major service providers of these areas, Virgin Trains West Coast and Virgin Trains East Coast (it’s probably important to say at this point that despite their names, the two services are legally separate) and how they may have implemented different pricing strategies in the latest fare release.
If we change the colour on the previous chart from YoY % increase and instead to the ‘fare setter’, it’s possible to see a clear pattern.
The values representing ‘Virgin Trains West Coast’ line up in every case with the circles which represent low growth, and by plotting growth instead of cost per mile through 2017 this becomes even clearer.
Holy shit, there was a complete price freeze on Virgin Train West Coast route into it’s London Terminus; did anyone read about that this week?
Okay, so it might be a well overdue price freeze for customers on the West Coast Main Line where, as per figure 4, appear to have seen costs above the going cost per mile for routes of a similar distance historically, but at least got it.
North v South
When looking at figures 3 and 4, you may have noticed something that I havn’t pointed out (yet), a huge cluster fuck of stations where the cost per mile into central London doesn’t appear to match what we would expect. They could definitely be classed as outliers (fig 6). This was something that I wanted to look into deeper, so I started with our ‘fare setters’ and overlaid these onto colour (fig 7).
These points appear to come from a very specific set of service providers, largely operating around the South and East London; now this doesn’t exactly seem fair; there are people that live in Axminster who pay £131.20 for a ~135 mile journey and then there are people from Uttoxeter who pay £290.00 for a ~120 mile journey (15 miles shorter!).
Unlike the West Coast and East Coast lines where there has been a distinct shift towards fairer pricing this isn’t quite the story for those operators that work on these shorter routes.
The above visual (fig 8) supports this statement and shows that for those operators where fares are distinctly lower than their peers (operators around South and East of London) the YoY % increase in fares is also lower, i.e. the gap between these two operator groups is actually increasing rather than decreasing.
Why this gap exists it’s hard to be sure without researching the topic in more detail, but it is more that likely a result of rail subsidies, designed to decrease the cost of rail travel to and from certain areas due to the social-economic benefits it can bring to the towns and people that they are serving.
Now it’s important to note this post only focuses on train travel into Central London with the greatest level of flexibility (an anytime return on any permitted route). This post certainly tells us some stories but it certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture.
For example it would be good to develop this analysis further be investigating the different geographies in more detail; instead of focusing purely on London perhaps looking at transport to all major destinations in the UK, alongside routes to all major towns/cities within that specific origins region. This would allow us to get a better picture on whether these stories of geographical divides are ‘London Centric’ or actually a wider problem related to the cost of travel in those areas.
Additional data around, for example, the cost of maintaining each of Britain’s key railway line’s would also be beneficial. Perhaps the higher cost for passengers on the west coast line compared to the east coast line is justified due to higher maintenance costs. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, you would also expect things such as the number of services to the destination and the business of the service to act as drivers to higher train fares, but unfortunately data in this area is notoriously difficult to gather yet alone make publicly available (though TFL are making a good stab at it).
Data scraped from nationalrail.co.uk
2017 data is from 24/12/2017, 2018 data is from 02/01/2018.
All journeys are from origin to London to their London Terminus.
Fare data is based on an anytime return fare from an origin outside of the London Travel Card area and are valid on any permitted route.
Distances based on straight line distance from origin to London St. Pancras in miles (technically a return covers this distance x 2 but all values would be relative).