Rail v Air – who wins?

26 February 2013

Friends often say: “How can the train be more expensive than the plane?” Odd question really – why should they not be different prices? It is very difficult to compare fares. Advance rail fares can get sold out, more can become available and are set at several levels so quoting the correct fare is difficult. Air fares vary wildly at different times of year, however, open and off-peak fares are fixed but the time restrictions are not – many operators lift them at Christmas. So comparing fares is very difficult – rail can be very cheap at times and very expensive. Air fares are the same.

I recently went up to Glasgow by train and came back by plane. The train journey was very calm and uneventful. Admittedly the 0930 train from London is probably not the most popular, but there were only about six people in the carriage. Got lots of work done and looked at the snow from the comfort of a warm carriage. Price? As I didn’t know what time I would be travelling in advance I couldn’t get the cheapest fare, so had to travel with a flexible off-peak single. Because of the oddities of the system, this only cost £1 less than the return. However, I could have paid less for the train journey. But it does take quite a time – over four and a half hours.

The plane. Not bad value for money – £90 all included. However, the usual time hanging around and you cannot really get much done apart from shopping. But dropped me at Gatwick, with a relatively easy hop back to Tooting. Overall I reckon the plane saved about an hour. With the kids to pick up that made a difference so I went for it.

What is often forgotten is that many rail tickets are refundable – I hear that few air ones are. My impression is that complaints are dealt with more seriously by train companies than many airlines. You can take much more luggage on a train – assuming you can jam it in somewhere. So the choice is a little more nuanced than might appear at first.

As ever we passengers make travel decisions based on delicate balances of cost and convenience. However, at least there is some choice both between both train companies and airlines. That competition drives a focus on passengers so often absent from much public transport provision.

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