Alastair Dalton: How to find hidden cheaper rail fares

Cheaper train tickets to V&A Dundee may be hidden. Picture: John Devlin
Cheaper train tickets to V&A Dundee may be hidden. Picture: John Devlin
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Rail passengers can be a vocal mob, and no more so when it comes to how much they pay for their tickets.

The focus on the issue is only likely to increase with record numbers using Scotland’s railways - more than 97 million journeys last year - on top of the annual above-inflation price increases which provide an unwelcome New Year jolt.

It’s been said that Britain has both the lowest and the highest cost of train travel - depending on which ticket you buy - as well as being the most complex.

People hate paying more than they need. They recognise it can be cheaper to buy train tickets in advance, and it costs more to travel at peak times. However, they will not be happy to find out they could have saved more than a quarter of the fare by buying two tickets instead of one - even just before boarding a train.

I first highlighted this practice of “split ticketing” in The Scotsman 15 years ago, but despite moves to reduce the number of such hidden anomalies, they are still lurking in the archaic ticket system.

Two things have brought this to prominence again - visitors to the new V&A museum in Dundee finding how expensive getting there can be, and a company in Edinburgh becoming the latest to sense rich pickings by helping passengers to save on travel.

Split ticketing works by buying two or more tickets for one journey, covering separate parts of the route.

For those planning a day trip to the V&A, a ScotRail an off-peak day return from Edinburgh is £28.30, but if you buy separate Edinburgh-Leuchars and Leuchars-Dundee tickets, it’s only £23.40 - a saving of 17 per cent.

You don’t need to change trains, although the one you travel on must stop at Leuchars to make these tickets valid.

The day return saving is even greater from Glasgow - nearly 22 per cent cheaper at £30.30 rather than £38.70 by booking separate Glasgow-Stirling and Stirling-Dundee tickets.

But Aberdonians would save even more by buying Aberdeen-Stonehaven and Stonehaven-Dundee tickets, cutting the cost of visiting the museum from £30.90 to £22.10, or 28.5 per cent.

The anomalies date back decades to when British Rail tackled soaring demand, such as that fuelled by the Aberdeen oil boom, by jacking up fares on busy lines.

In the old days, you just had to find out these things for yourself - from a helpful train conductor in my case - because I understand ticket sellers are only obliged to offer you the cheapest ticket between A and B, not also via C or D.

The internet era of smartphones and apps has changed all that, and several firms provide an easy way of checking for hidden bargains such split tickets.

Interestingly, rather than being seen as cannibalising the market, such outfits are seen as helping to grow it, and receive 5 per cent commission on sales from train operators.

One of the latest entrants is TrainPal, run by the Chinese owners of Edinburgh-based flight comparison firm Skyscanner.

It has decided to start with just British fares, because of their complexity, and railway ticketing general manager Amy Rupu Wei reckons split ticket savings can be made on 40 per cent of journeys.

Industry umbrella body the Rail Delivery Group has vowed that “tickets need to be simpler”, and its proposals are due soon. Until then, if you rail fare looks high, there may well be a lower one hiding in the system.