UNBELIEVABLE public transport costs in the UK

So a single underground journey in london is now 4 pounds (without an oyster). I just travelled to Scotland for New Year and the 6.5 hour train journey cost me 100 pounds (not including the cost of getting to and from Kings Cross). (For the yanks, that’s 8 dollars and 200 dollars respectively at 2:1 exchange rates)

Obviously, this means that the rail networks in the UK are having to raise prices in order to make ends meet (now they are primarily private). I also heard that there isn’t a rail network in the world that operates at a profit; all of them require some sort of government subsidy.

A long while back, there was a suggestion that all rail lines in the UK should be ripped up and replaced with roads, with a permanent bus services operating in their place. I also notice that there aren’t really any significant passenger rail networks in the US (save a few on the East Cost), which might imply that the market-driven forces there have led them to more sensible conclusions regarding the long term viability of this form of public transport.

Anyway, my question is whether anyone knows what the P&L for a railway system is for the UK, or anywhere else. I’d be interested to know whether any national rail / public transport network operates at a profit, even when you factor in intangibles? Is there any study on this that justifies the existence of the rail networks in any country from an economic (not political) perspective?

I can predict that someone is going to argue about the ‘intangibles’ and whether the political wind of a given country justifies public spending on rail services. Obviously, the Channel Tunnel is the best example a project that will probably never make money, but was undertaken in the best national interest. However, I feel that there must be a good answer here somewhere (that doesn’t simply rely on citing the most extreme examples of rail subsidies…)

The US has minimal passenger train service concentrated in two corridors lining parts of both coasts. Our national train service is called Amtrak and it is heavily subsidized and few would suggest that it could ever turn a profit. Our country is too geographically large with poorly defined city centers plus most people have cars and our Interstate Highway System makes cars cheaper and more convenient for the vast majority of routes.

Maybe that is what it takes for the companies in the Britain to turn a profit. Those trains must be very expensive.

Do you mean that any trip, no matter how short, in the London area is a minimum of 4 pounds?

Cost of living in the UK and London

Today, 15 miles to London, return £20

8 weeks ago, a mysteriously pre-booked ticket to Devon £13.50

  • return ticket £65

We are mad to tolerate it

Cash fares are being phased out entirely on the tube - the £4 fare is an explicit policy to get people to use Oyster cards (which don’t cost anything apart from a refundable deposit).

This is thoroughly disingenuous as a meaningful comparison of train costs, because it’s comparing the highest walk-up cost for the train with the cheapest possible flight. What’s the standard walk-up single fare from London to Dublin with BA? £276.

At the same time, also whether there’s any road network which runs at a profit, once you similarly factor in intangibles and hidden subsidies? :wink:

Also re. the OP - don’t forget that when making the comparison to the dollar, the exchange rate is unusually high.

So what are visitors to the city expected to do? How does the Oyster card work?

It’s a credit-card-sized bit of plastic with an embedded passive RF chip in it - you ‘charge it up’ with money by inserting it in a machine and paying by cash or card (or you can pay online or at a desk) - then you touch it on a sensor at the entry and exit barriers and they open for you - because the card has a unique ID, the money isn’t stored on the card, but in a central database and because of this, your travel is consolidates so that you will only ever pay the cheapest possible fare for the journeys you have actually used

-whereas with ordinary tickets, if you made a single journey, then an unexpected single journey later the same day, you’d have been better off buying a one-day travel card, but of course you don’t know this until after it happens.

Anyone can get an oyster card and you don’t even need to fill a form or anything - you can buy them more or less anonymously (but the benefit of registering your account is that you don’t lose any money if you lose the card, and you can manage it online).

You basically walk up to the ticket office upon arrival in London, and ask for an Oyster card. You pay a £3 refundable deposit, and you can put some cash value, say £10 on the card. You then use this card to touch in and out of the ticket barriers and pay much reduced fares; a Zone 1 single costs £4 if you pay by cash and £1.50 if you use Oyster. If you make multiple journies such that you would have been better off buying a daily travel card, the amount you’re charged is capped such that you pay 50p less then having bought a travel card, so as a Zone 1-2 travel card costs £6.60 now (peak), you’d be capped at £6.10.

When you leave London, you hand your Oyster card back to the ticket office and reclaim your money.

Melbourne (Aus) is going to introduce the ‘oyster’ system (I think we have a different name for it but) in the next couple of months.

I wait with (fishy) bated breath.

We have those in DC too; we call them SmarTrip cards.

£100? That really is UNBELIEVABLE. My train ticket from Edinburgh to Wigan (about three and a half hours, halfway down the West Coast Mainline) costs £11 booked two days in advance without a Young Persons Rail Card (this gives me an extra pound discount provided I book a week in advance. The card costs ~£20 - not really worth it).

My friend has to travel from Camberley to Scarborough for a meeting in the future. Instead of driving he thought to book a train ticket some weeks in advance. Even with that they quoted over £200 - about £220 I think, with several changes of train. The price of flying from Bournmouth Hurn to Leeds-Bradford was £5

This is certainly not true if you include freight railroads; several of them in the USA are making very good profits, without government subsidy. Of course, that is current subsidy – almost all of them got government subsidies back when they were being built, generally in the form of free land for the track route and a certain amount of land alongside, where they built stations and then sold the nearby land to people for houses & businesses.

Even some passenger lines are profitable; or would be if they were on their own. In the US, all rail passenger lines are run by a government corporation. Several of them were profitable when they were taken over, and are still profitable today. (For example, the Boston-New York-Baltimore-Washington lines.) But they are all part of a national system, and the profits on those lines are offset by losses on other, less-traveled routes. And because of agreements made when the government corporation was formed, it’s difficult for Amtrak to discontinue routes.

And as GorillaMan pointed out, highway roads don’t turn a profit, either. Neither do airlines, once you consider the government subsidies in building the airports, operating the air traffic control system, and spending military money to design the planes & engines. The same was true of canals. riverboat lines, and steamships, back when they were the main passenger transport mechanisms. Even back when “all roads led to Rome”, those stone roads were subsidized, being mostly built by government officials with convict or slave labor.

Seems to be pretty common thru history that governments have found it worthwhile to encourage travel & commerce by subsidizing transit systems, so that they charge customers less than their actual operating cost.

Following up GorillaMan re the cost of travel to Edinburgh the figures could have been:

Train to Edinburgh £24.50 (GNER Standard Advanced 2 for 12/1/07)
Flight to Edinburgh £203.10 (BA Economy (Traveller) for 12/1/07)

These days both planes and trains match price to demand - if you book in advance and do not need a flexible ticket you can find low prices.

I don’t know where your friend got the quote from, I have just checked and a return fare, two weeks in advance is £64.50 :confused: Mind you it is stupid journey by train - three or four changes and takes forever.

Did the flight from Bournmouth to Leeds/Bradford include taxes etc. and how did they get to Bournmouth and from Leeds to Scarborough?

Mind you, I am not defending the rail companies - the overcrowding can be horrible and some prices are absurd - but let’s compare like for like.

So i’m thinking, thank god for taxation huh?


Hell, we all pay taxes The question is what the government - in its wisdom - spends them on!

I can think of worse things than a decent rail network although I don’t make that much use of it myself. Personally I use the motorways more than the trains for long journeys - when travelling as a family of four it is not only cheaper but a lot easier - but when I think of all the people on the trains that could be blocking up an already over burdened road network I start to think the 4 billion pound subsidy is worth while :dubious:

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian about the various ways you can work your way around the insane UK rail pricing policies. For example:

There are two nitpicks that I have with the article:

  1. It describes the “labyrinthine fare structure that is a legacy of the privatisation of British Rail”. Pre-privatisation, there was also a silly fare structure under British Rail (although rail privatisation can rightly be blamed for many subsequent issues, particularly in regard to the overall pricing levels, cancellations and, most importantly, safety).

  2. There’s no mention of the fact that a large proportion of rail travellers are not paying for their own fare, since it’s business travel paid for by their employers. Neither the traveller themself nor the secretary who books the journey really cares about going to much trouble to save the company money, allowing the rail companies to cream larger profits on the “get me a return to Manchester tomorrow at about 8am” type of bookings.

Other than that, though, it’s an interesting article.

Surely it has been like that for ages in England. When I lived in London in the 70s I used to walk everywhere partly due to cost and partly because I was in no hurry but I recall when I visited my grandparents in Yorkshire the return train fare was about a weeks rent for my flat in Notting Hill.

As everyone has already said, rail prices are pretty screwed in the UK. The highest fair is pretty steep, but it’s designed for ‘business’ travellers with expense accounts.

You can get much cheaper fares if you’re prepared to book in advance and be flexible, if you can’t do that you do tend to get shafted. But the airlines are exactly the same. You could, of course, get a coach for a fraction of the price if you’re willing to double the journey time.

There are also lots of ‘tricks’ that get you a cheaper fare, I saved around £20 a head on a return journey up north by booking it as a single out and a seperate mid-week return ticket (so one journey never got used). I did take about an hour of trying different combinations to find that one. If only I’d had time to sell the spare ticket …

The single best thing they could do is offer a decent unified pricing system that gets you the cheapest fare without you having to do all the legwork. Bonus points if it can give you door to door prices for any mode of transport.