The fare rises that every rail operator makes in January always get the most publicity, but Virgin Trains East Coast are also putting up fares this September (2016) and also, to make things worse, they're also tightening up peak time restrictions with the off-peak return tickets.
At the time of writing the Virgin Trains East Coast website has not been updated to reflect the changes to the restrictions. Currently an off-peak return on Virgin Trains East Coast services is valid on any train on the return portion of the ticket. The peak restrictions only apply to the outward portion. From September the peak restrictions will apply in both directions.
If the changes to peak time validity apply to you then it will make rail fares a lot more expensive. For example if you were going Newcastle - London on an off-peak return costs £206.40 however if the changes in terms and conditions mean that the off-peak ticket is no longer suitable for you then you'd need an Anytime Return which will cost £278 an effective increase of £70 per journey is not to be laughed at. The Anytime First Class return fare is a crazy £444 (up from £431)!
The price rises appear to be for the more flexible ticket types and the changes to the off-peak ticket validity are similar to the rules in place on other operators but even so it'll be disappointing for those who needed the flexibility or those that are only able to buy their tickets on the day.
All prices are quoted travelling from the following destinations travelling to London Kings Cross.
|Starting point||Off-peak return||Anytime Standard
(from Sep 2016)
|How worse off you'll be
if you no longer qualify
for an off-peak fare
These prices are based on any permitted tickets (ones that will let you use any operator on the route), for Peterborough, Doncaster and York there's other operators available that provide a cheaper option if you need to book on the day however they don't run as frequent as Virgin Trains East Coast services.
The rules for the more restrictive "Super Off-peak" ticket do not appear to be changing but we'll keep an eye out for any changes in the future.
Who pays these fares?
It's been many years since we've been able to consider InterCity rail travel as turn up and go affordable. For those who are impulsive and would like to turn up at the station on the day and go to a random destination for a reasonable price will find that this would be an expensive hobby. Booking ahead is the only way of getting a fair price but not everyone can do this. On a business level what happens if you need to attend a last minute meeting or you need the flexibility to be able to get a later train should a meeting overrun? What about family emergencies, a much loved relative takes ill and you're not able to fork out £200 to get to see them? There's many reasons people need the flexibility of these fares.
For those who aren't used to buying flexible tickets the costs in the table above will look surprising, but Virgin Trains East Coast is still cheaper than average for flexible tickets.
Here's some sample fares from other operators:
|Starting point||Off-peak return||Anytime Return||Operator||Similar VTEC journey|
|Nottingham||£93.50||£160.50||East Midlands Trains||Grantham|
This shows that Virgin Trains West Coast has the worst pricing of all for anytime return fares but their off-peak return fares are below average price. What isn't clear looking at prices alone is that Virgin Trains West Coast has restrictions on their off-peak tickets that are more restrictive than what the East Coast services offer, even when Virgin Trains East Coast make their changes to acceptability of off-peak ticket the restrictions aren't going to be as restrictive as we have on West Coast.
So compared to other operators we're still not doing too bad, but that's no consolation to those who find that they're going to have to pay more due to these changes.
Ticketing is still confusing
Quite a few years ago the range of rail tickets were renamed suposedly to reduce confusion. However, it's still not simple to know which turn up and go ticket you need as each operator has a different definition of peak. For example on Virgin Trains West Coast a peak service is any train that arrives into Euston between 07:20 and 11:29 whereas on Virgin Trains East Coast a peak train is any train that arrives into King's Cross before 10:08. So someone who's used to the East Coast rules could run into trouble if they bought an off-peak on West Coast and it arrived into London before 11:30.
Operators need to be more innovative in their ticketing approach. Once the new trains (with electronic reservations) arrive on the East Coast it should be possible for people to buy semi flex tickets through the app, with dynamic pricing on the day to encourage people to use the less crowded services and the ability to see live seating information on services that you're intending to take.