Friday, 15 August 2008

The Train to Glasgow for Just £1

Virgin Trains before departure at London Euston

Yesterday I made my cheapest ever journey from London to Glasgow. Actually my headline tells a lie. It didn't quite cost a pound, but there's nothing straightforward about rail ticket prices in the UK, as I'm about to find out.

A month ago I noticed an offer on Travelzoo for the Megabus. Confusingly the Megabus also sells tickets for the train. There was an offer to travel by rail from Birmingham to Glasgow for just a pound.

The British train booking system is incomprehensible. A scandal actually. The government wants more travellers to use public transport - but the cost of long distance peak time rail travel is usually outlandishly expensive. Booking a ticket for immediate travel is a mugs game. So booking a 300 mile journey for just £1 was simply too good to miss.

Of course I still had to get from London to Birmingham. I checked and a single fare booked a month ahead was available for just £10.50. It slightly took the gloss off my £1 fare to Glasgow, but the total was still only £11.50.

When I arrived at London Euston the Virgin Trains 08.46 service direct to Glasgow was due to depart. There are 12 different types of single advance tickets available for this train. The cheapest (The Standard Single Advance) costs £40.50 it arrives 1 hour 39 minutes earlier than going via Birmingham. Turn up on the day and buy a single ticket for this train and it costs £101.90 (single saver).

If you make the mistake of buying a single when you want to come back as well, your mistake will cost dear. A return fare costs just £1 more -£102.90. so if you didn't know this and make the mistake of buying 2 walk up single tickets your return journey will set you back £203.80. No wonder travellers find the train service bewildering and prefer to get in their cars and drive.

So I was slightly nervous my roundabout trip via Birmingham might go wrong and I would be charged a full fare at some point. My tickets were all only applicable for specific times. In fact I didn't even have a ticket for the £1 journey - just a reference number.

The first leg was uneventful. I got a table seat and made use of the handy plug-point provided for laptops. The connecting train was already sitting at the adjacent platform when I arrived on time in Birmingham, so I was able to bag another prime seat. This was the most satisfying leg of the trip - it was the longest ride, yet cost just £1.

As we headed North the train rapidly filled up, until passengers were standing in what the train manager announced to be 'the vestibules'. Left standing for 4 and a half hours on a £101.90 ticket you might feel like you'd been landed one in the vestibules too. Painful. Quite why Virgin had offloaded tickets for a £1 when passengers were standing is a mystery to me - unless we were all enjoying their generosity (which I very much doubt).

The train arrived in Glasgow just 4 minutes behind schedule - not bad for a 438 mile journey via Birmingham - costing a total of just £11.50. But as I've discovered there's nothing straightforward about low cost train travel on Britain's railways.

The journey in numbers:
The tube from West London to Euston cost £2.50 (10 miles = 25p per mile)
The Train from Euston to Birmingham cost £10.50 (116 miles = 9p per mile)
The train from Birmingham to Glasgow cost £1 (290 miles = 0.35p per mile)
The taxi from Glasgow Central station to my meeting cost £5 (2.5 miles = £2 per mile)

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