Trains versus Planes

By | Category: Travel rumblings

Some days ago I wrote that I couldn’t remember the last time we had such a good weather forecast for an Easter holiday. It has turned out that this has been the warmest Easter since 1949. So many of us have been out and about making the most of it. Car mostly, but for longer journeys the train has been the answer. The number of people heading out of Paddington on Thursday night to the west country or out of Kings Cross or Euston to the north gave witness to that but was this the best way to go?
Last week Oliver Smith in the Daily Telegraph ran a story about how the fares on half of our most popular routes were cheaper by air than they were by train. It pointed out that this was despite massive increases in APD and fuel increases to boot. On April 8th they rang around to check fares for travel three days later and then two and a half months later on June 27th. They used the National Rail website for train fares and Skyscanner for air. The differences were surprising. Compare two routes, London to Glasgow and Bristol to Glasgow. For the fare in three days’ time to Glasgow by rail was £82 by plane from London and £100 from Bristol. The train equivalents were £114.70 and £146.40. For travel on 27th June the air fare from London was £30 and from Bristol, £57. But by train, the price was £66 from London and £98.50 from Bristol. I would have expected that the train fare would have been cheaper some 10 weeks away but on these routes, air still won. Why? After all, we as the state subsidise the railways and don’t subsidise air travel (except on certain “social routes” such as in the highlands of Scotland and the air route from North to South Wales.)
Usually, in studies like this, fares for travel the day after or close to that are always pricier and the further away you can book the cheaper they become. But to find a disparity like this makes a number of questions come to mind which neither the spokespeople from Passenger Focus nor Which? Travel addressed. If rail is more expensive should we hand the running of the railways to Michael O’Leary who runs Ryanair or Carolyn McCall who runs easyJet in order to cut prices or at least remove the £3.7 billion subsidy we give just to Network rail? Should major stations be expanded into huge retail centres so that retail sales can subsidise the cost of the stations and the rail infrastructure? Is competition an issue? Getting to Glasgow from London means using Virgin Trains or a slower East Coast train service via Edinburgh. From Bristol, its Cross Country and Virgin. But from Bristol the only direct air service is easyJet. From London you have BA, easyjet and bmi. So it appears competition, at least on the Bristol route, is not an issue? easyJet still offers a better price despite having a monopoly service.
The question remains. Why, given its subsidy, is rail often more expensive than air when we want to travel?

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