There is a widely shared view they are too high and too complicated. The reality is that while eye-watering fares do exist, there are also many bargains to be had – if you can find them.
However, there is another perception that commands wider agreement, that, along with bus fares, the cost of travelling by rail has increased significantly faster than the cost of motoring, which may even have fallen.
A set formula that’s been in place for years means many rail tickets go up every January by one per cent more than inflation.
The disparity has prompted ministers to commission a “fair fares” review, agreed as part of the SNP-Greens’ power-sharing agreement and confirmed in the Scottish government’s Programme for Government plans on Tuesday.
Against that backdrop, you’d think that public transport operators would be at pains to point out the benefits when announcing new fares which reduce the cost of travelling.
But in ScotRail’s case, to my astonishment, it let a good news announcement about a new cheaper ticket for certain journeys on its flagship route become a bad news story.
This will not only reinforce some people’s views about train fares but has also given entirely the wrong impression that the new Edinburgh-Glasgow tickets are more expensive when they are actually cheaper than others.
To explain that, here’s how the new fares fit in with the existing ticket options, so apologies for all the figures, but it’s actually less complicated than some other trips.
It’s also worth pointing out the new tickets are designed for occasional travellers, such as folk staying overnight, and not for commuters, for whom season tickets or flexipasses will remain cheapest.
If you travel by ScotRail on a return day trip between the two cities at peak times, you’d pay £26.60, while off-peak (avoiding early morning and late afternoon) the fare is £13.70.
However, until now, there has been no return ticket available if you wanted to come back another day, and many passengers were left with having to buy two single tickets instead, which cost a total of £31 at peak times, £27 off peak or £29 for a combination of the two.
So you would think ScotRail’s announcement of new “open return” fares on the route which cut the cost if you’re not travelling there and back on the same day would have been widely welcomed.
They cost £30 for peak travel – £1 cheaper than previously – or £18.40 off peak, which is £8.60, or one third, less.
Despite this, several media chose instead to highlight passengers’ comments on social media that the new £30 fare was “ridiculously expensive”, without explaining – or perhaps not understanding – that it is less than you would previously have paid.
But that’s perhaps not surprising, because the ScotRail press release announcing the fares it did not explain that either.
It proudly proclaimed the new fares as “another big step forward on the road to recovery from the pandemic”.
But it reads to me like a massive step backwards that will do nothing to dispel the notion that all rail fares are extortionate and they only go up.