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21 Aug 2019

Rail fares rise: how to cut the cost of your commute

Your season ticket could cost £100 more from January

Rail fares will rise by up to 2.8% in January, in line with July's Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate, it has been confirmed. So what does this mean for your monthly commute?

Price increases will be capped at the July RPI figure for all regulated train journeys in England, Scotland and Wales. These include season tickets in the southeast, many of which will cost over £100 more annually.

Find out how much your train tickets could cost next year, and what you can do to keep rail fares low.

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Why are rail fares rising?

Train companies set their own ticket prices, but the maximum they can rise by each year is capped at the previous year's July RPI inflation rate - which this year was 2.8%.

The government's decision to use RPI, rather than the Consumer Price Index (CPI), has been controversial. CPI is typically lower than RPI, currently sitting at 2.1%.

How much more will my tickets cost?

Though rail firms are not legally obliged to increase prices, they tend to so annually - and it's not unusual for them to increase by the full RPI amount.

An annual season ticket from Hemel Hempstead to London would cost £107 more with a 2.8% increase. A season ticket between Glasgow and Edinburgh, meanwhile, would cost an extra £114.

Annual tickets for both these routes already cost around £4,000. Other commuter routes cost even more.

This fare hike comes after years of poor service from rail companies, which has seen millions of commuters crammed into overcrowded, late-running trains.

Which? has been campaigning for a better train service since 2015. Sign our petition to demand the rail industry puts passengers first, and read on to find out what you can do to lessen the burden of these price hikes.

How to cut commute costs

1. Time your season ticket tactically

Annual season tickets give you 52 weeks' travel for the price of 40. If you commute via train and you don't already have one of these, investing in one could save you hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

Season tickets are valid for one year from the day you buy them. So, if you buy yours to start working on 31 December 2019, you can lock in the lower price for another year.

This way, you'll effectively be one year behind on the price hikes, and you can renew on 31 December every year to keep it that way.

Then again, if your season ticket is due for renewal more than 12 weeks out from 31 December, you may spend more by paying for these tickets day-by-day.

2. Get a season ticket loan from your employer

In many cases, annual season tickets cost well into the thousands. Choosing a monthly ticket instead may be more manageable, but you'll end up spending more over the course of the year.

Some employers offer interest-free loans for transport, allowing you to benefit from the lower cost of an annual season ticket while still paying monthly.

Under these schemes, your employer funds the upfront cost of your season ticket, and you pay them back through your net salary over the course of the year.

Monthly season tickets for London Zones 1-4, for example, cost £194 each - that's £2,328 a year.

An annual season ticket, on the other hand, is more than £300 cheaper at £2,020. If you spread the cost of this ticket over 12 monthly paycheck deductions, you'd be paying £168 per month instead.

3. Get a railcard

At the time of writing, there are seven railcards available through National Rail, with an eighth coming into effect from September. Most of these offer you one-third off ticket prices.

The downside is that you can't use them for season tickets, so they don't always offer better value.

A discounted day return ticket from Reading to London is currently £32.50. If you bought one of these for each working day in the year (assuming 20 days holiday plus bank holidays), you'd spend £7,540.

An annual season ticket is thousands cheaper at £4,604. And you can use it at weekends.

There are exceptions to this, however. Commuting from Falkirk to Edinburgh, for example, is cheaper with discounted day returns (if you take 20 days holiday).

And the railcard/day return route becomes even more affordable if you work less than 5 days a week, or mainly travel at off-peak times. So it's worth finding out if a season ticket is cheaper than railcard tickets before you commit to either option.

You can do this by working out how many days you'll be working this year and multiplying that by the price of a day return.Compare your result to the price of an annual season ticket.

Of course, this is only relevant if you are eligible for a railcard. These are the railcards that might be available to you:

  • 16-25 Railcard- For ages 16-25. 1/3 off fares
  • 26-30 Railcard - For ages 26-30. 1/3 off fares
  • Senior Railcard - For ages 60 and over. 1/3 off fares
  • Family & Friends Railcard - For up to four adults (aged 16+) and four children (ages 5-15). 1/3 off adult fares, 60% off kids fares. Minimum of one child and one adult must be traveling
  • Two Together Railcard - For two named people aged 16 or over. 1/3 off fares if you travel together
  • Network Railcard - For ages 16 or over. 1/3 off fares for you and three adults, plus 60% off kids fares. Valid for travel in the southeast and London
  • Disabled Persons Railcard - For eligible disabled persons. 1/3 off fares for you and a friend
  • 16-17 Saver - For ages 16 and 17. 50% off fares. Valid from 2 September

All railcards cost £30 a year except the Disabled Persons Railcard, which is £20. Some offer 3-year deals for £70. Discounts apply to 'most' rail fares, so there will be exceptions.

4. Use a credit card

If your employer doesn't offer interest-free loans, or if you're self-employed, you could use a 0% purchase credit card to buy an annual season ticket, and pay that off over the year before the interest-free period ends. Some cards will give you up to 27 months to repay your balance, though of course you should try to repay the full amount before your next year's season ticket is due.

Alternatively, it could make sense to take advantage of a credit card that offers cashback when you buy it.

Using a card that offers 5% cashback to buy a season ticket for London Zones 1-4 would get you over £100 cashback immediately. It might not technically make the ticket any cheaper, but it'll certainly make buying it a little easier.

However, you should only pick this option if you can afford to pay the balance off in full fairly quickly. The interest charges on a £2,000 loan could be over £30 per month, assuming a fairly standard 22.9% AER.

5. Claim for your delays

Train delays can be a headache, but you'll be entitled to compensation if you're more than 30 minutes late (or 15 minutes on Southern, Great Northern and South Western Railway).

You might also be able to claim other compensation if your train company fails to meet its performance targets, or doesn't provide the service to the right standard.

You can find out more in our guide on how to claim train delay compensation.