Never had getting on a train to London felt so good. As Preston left for the capital at 09:01 I added up my savings. My seat, booked a week ago through Avanti West Coast’s new Superfare ticketing system, had cost £22 one-way, the cheapest I’ve bought in the six years I’ve been making regular trips between the two cities.
By using the system to book two one-way fares for a day trip, I saved 60 per cent of the cost of the cheapest off-peak round trip, which, a week ago, would have cost £110. Chosen to book single tickets in advance for the same services, I would have shelled out £174 and had I needed full flexibility, a return at any time would have cost me £378 had I booked a week in advance.
But there’s a catch, there’s always a catch, in the new money-saving trick I’d just taken advantage of: I only found out which train I was taking 24 hours before departure.
The scheme has been launched as a test, which will run until the end of July. “It’s aimed at those who don’t normally opt for the train and who can be more flexible with their travel,” an Avanti spokesperson said.
Anyone who wants to make the most of the savings has to be very laissez-faire with their travel plans. After a simple booking process, customers enter their departure station (currently only available from Preston, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street) and the date they wish to travel to London. They are then presented with a choice of time slots: morning (07:00 to 11:59), afternoon (12:00 to 16:59) and night (17:00 to 23:00).
Regardless of which they choose, single tickets cost a flat rate (Preston £22; Manchester £20; Liverpool Lime Street £25; Birmingham £12). Then the waiting begins: the day before departure, travelers find out in which service they have reserved a seat. “Tickets are assigned to quieter services within each respective time slot… We match them with an empty seat and give them their departure time, as well as a reservation,” Avanti confirmed.
The fine print continues: tickets are non-refundable and non-exchangeable, group bookings are limited to nine, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be seated together and must book between 21 and seven days in advance of travel.
The plan hopes to attract students in particular.
A large gap in Superfare ticket availability on weekends would present a significant barrier. “There are a limited number of Superfare tickets,” an Avanti spokesperson said, “and the tickets will not show up in the system if they are sold out or if there are major engineering works or strikes.” My research showed no Superfare tickets available for the next three weekends and blacked out dates on either side of Easter.
Weekdays seem to be when these tickets are most available, but herein lies another problem with the scheme. It just doesn’t work for anyone who relies more on these services: commuters, with meetings to attend and deadlines to meet. Matthew on Twitter put it bluntly: “[It would make it ]Very difficult to plan your life… [It] It would be great, but I’m afraid we all have commitments to keep.”
At the Preston platform, I spoke to a smartly dressed gentleman who was heading south for a business meeting. He had paid “over £100” two weeks ago to reserve his seat on the same train that had been assigned to me 24 hours earlier. , having paid just £22.
It is also difficult for young families. Keeley Cafferkey, a new mom from Preston, wouldn’t risk leaving travel plans to chance, no matter what her savings. “It’s just not practical,” she said. “You couldn’t guarantee meal times or even enough time to see the sites; It’s a lot of uncertainty for a family day. I wouldn’t want to have a baby on a late train home either, and there’s a good chance of that happening.”
The train arrived in London at 11:12. I had an afternoon and evening to burn off until my assigned 8:33 p.m. ride home. But it had been impossible to make meaningful reservations without knowing my schedule beforehand. Those on a mini-break may have more fruitful results. Jake Oates and his wife from Preston agree: “If we were doing a kid-free weekend in London with nothing planned and it meant we could do it cheap, I don’t see a problem. But it’s much more complicated than just ‘you can save some money’”.
My return train was busier than my morning commute, but for the first time, Avanti’s free Wi-Fi worked like a charm and having a seat reservation numbed nightmares of previous trips sitting on the lobby floor. I had also saved a large part of my monthly travel expenses. Small victories, but with so many drawbacks, the system is not the panacea Avanti might have devised in the rush to fix Britain’s railways.
Four things that could really transform UK rail travel
“There is no doubt that simplicity sells: a clear and transparent fare system will restore the consumer confidence that the rail network has lost,” says Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61.
“Indeed, since the days of British Rail, polls have revealed that people think rail fares are expensive. But interestingly, when those same people were asked what they thought these expensive fees actually were, they cited prices that were significantly higher, suggesting that there is much to be gained from a transparent and easy-to-understand fee system.
“And we need to replace the current chaotic pricing with a logical and consistent pricing structure where opportunities for split ticketing are no longer endemic.”
Valuable incentives that deliver consistent value to everyone, with no loopholes, have proven popular on the Continent – the UK could gain big if it did the same. For example, in Germany, Deutsche Bahn is launching a €49-a-month (£43) pass that offers unlimited travel on the rail network and is available to everyone. It follows a successful trial last summer when the same passes were offered for €9, prompting a surge in rail travel across the country. The passes will now be permanent fixtures and will cost around £1.40 per day.
go back to retro
Ticket booths and maps would help inspire confidence and travel ideas, believes Daniel Elkan, founder of SnowCarbon.
“In the UK, box offices have been derided as a waste of money. Could not be farther from the truth. The ability to speak with someone in person about the best type of fare for a trip is very beneficial and saves the traveler money.
“For some reason in the UK the map of the national rail network has been withdrawn from public use. Maps are great for both planning trips and inspiring them. When you can see how the stations connect and where you can get to, rail travel ideas flourish.”
According to the most recent statistics, the proportion of rail services reaching their destination within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival is the lowest since records began. In early 2023, train cancellations soared to a record level, with 4.5 percent of services cancelled. In an ideal world, our rail system would be reliable and on time. But in the current circumstances, clients need reassurance that if the plans collapse, they won’t run out of money.
Earlier this month, The Telegraph revealed plans the Government has discussed to increase the minimum delay threshold for refunds after trains are delayed from 15 minutes to half an hour. To regain traveler trust, systems like these are essential and must not be reduced, but rather simplified and consistent across the board.