Matt Prior: We won't ditch our cars until train travel improves

Matt Prior opinion

“In a car, my naivety and spontaneity aren’t taken advantage of”, says Prior

Prior decides its better to travel by car and thinks the train ticketing system leaves you feeling foolish

It’s 4.15am and I’m in my kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil while flicking between the Google Maps and Waze apps on my phone.

I have to be at a lay-by in Teesdale between 9.30am and 10am in a car that’s fuelled enough for the day, and I need to pick up a videographer from Leeds on the way.

My phone says Leeds is 1hr 30min from our destination, so I should get to the videographer by 8am. And he’s 2hr 50min from my gaff near Bicester, so I could leave almost an hour later than now, at 5.10am.

But that – and you’ll have known this as you read it – would be a mistake. Because by the time I get to Leeds for 8am, there will be loads of people getting to Leeds for 8am. So the kettle boils, I fill a mug and off I go.

Initially it looks like I’ll be daftly early: 7.20am. But I’ll want more tea and a bun on the way, and if I fuel the car near Leeds, it will last the day. My estimated arrival time creeps onwards.

After a relaxed fuel stop, I arrive at 7.55am. Spot on.

The second section of the journey is more predictable. We’re the only people trying to get to a lay-by in Teesdale by 10am, so traffic is expectedly light and we’re there by 9.35am.

It couldn’t be simpler. Or could it? There are variables and options to go around if it goes awry, which I know about only through experience. Different leaving times give different results. But a near constant, at least, is how much it will cost.

A few weeks ago, I took a train to Birmingham. As with the car, I stood in my kitchen working out journey times. Being naive, I would have gone to the station and bought a ticket.

But that again would have been a mistake. At £29.10, I would have overpaid the German taxpayer, who ultimately owns Chiltern Railways.

Had I gone online, I could have saved myself 10%, paying £26.10 for the same journey. But that too would have been a mistake, because I was travelling with someone who had a Network Railcard and therefore could buy me a ticket for just £24 so long as we travelled together.

I say ‘a’ ticket. The catch was that the Network Railcard was valid only to King’s Sutton, a few stops up the line. So we were travelling there with a Railcard discount, then on a full fare to Birmingham – although these ‘split’ tickets were valid only on trains that called at King’s Sutton.

Confused? I was – and I would have paid 20% more than I’d needed to if somebody else hadn’t known better.

If you’ve regularly used trains for as long as I’ve been driving to nowhere via somewhere, I’m sure you’ve got the hang of it. But should one have to?

If I drive now to Edinburgh, say, all I have to think about is how long it will take me to get there. It will cost me the same amount as if I’d have thought about it three months ago.

By train, my options can be as little as £179 or as much as £380 (both standard class), depending on when I go. In a car, my naivety and spontaneity aren’t taken advantage of. It’s no longer really meant to be like this.

In May 2021, a new public body called Great British Railways was announced, promising that “a quarter century of fragmentation on the railways [would] end” and it would “simplify the current mass of confusing tickets”.

Alas, three prime ministers and three transport secretaries later, it has been bumped to at least the next parliament, even assuming it’s picked up then.

I don’t mind planning a journey. And I don’t mind the idea of a loyalty card: you regularly use something, you save a few quid doing it.

But I do mind the feeling that unless I game the system, I’m being taken for a mug. Kettle has boiled. Fetch the car keys.

Source: Autocar

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