Train station ticket machines can charge up to 154 per cent more than booking online, with the best value fares ‘unavailable or hidden in a bewildering array of fare options’, according to a mystery shopper study by Which?.
The consumer watchdog notes that public outcry recently brought an end to plans by rail companies for widespread ticket office closures, but points out that ‘huge numbers of travellers are reliant on ticket machines or online booking’.
As it stands, one in six of the 1,766 train stations under the Department for Transport’s control has a full-time ticket office; 40 per cent are staffed part time, and 43 per cent don’t have a ticket office at all. In 2022, 12 per cent of tickets were purchased from a machine – around 150million journeys.
Which? sent mystery shoppers to 15 stations – each run by a different train operator – and checked the price of 75 journeys from a ticket machine against the price available from the UK’s biggest ticket site, Trainline.
At each machine, the mystery shoppers attempted to buy the cheapest one-way ticket for travel that same day, the following morning and in three weeks’ time.
Train station ticket machines can charge up to 154 per cent more than booking in advance online, with the best value fares ‘unavailable or hidden in a bewildering array of fare options’ according to Which?
Which? said: ‘A huge numbers of travellers are reliant on ticket machines or online booking.’ In 2022, 12 per cent of tickets were purchased from a machine – around 150million journeys
The survey showed fares purchased online were cheaper around three-quarters of the time, and on average, same-day journeys cost 52 per cent more from machines.
Which? called some of the price differences ‘eye-watering’.
For example, researchers purchasing a same-day, one-way ticket from Holmes Chapel in Cheshire to London would have paid 154 per cent more for their ticket from the station’s ticket machine compared with buying online, with the machine charging £66 against Trainline’s £26 split-ticket option.
Similarly, someone buying a same day, one-way ticket from Northampton to Cardiff would have paid £107 for their ticket from the machine, 148 per cent more than buying online, where the price was just £43.
According to Which? booking online on trainline.com can often allow passengers to purchase considerably cheaper ‘advance’ tickets, even ten minutes before a journey time
According to Which? many ticket machines don’t offer ‘advance’ fares and can make it difficult to purchase off-peak fares at peak times
STATIONS WHICH? SURVEYED
Which? sent mystery shoppers to 15 stations in October 2023. Stations visited were (train operator follows in brackets):
London Euston (Avanti West Coast)
London Marylebone (Chiltern Railways)
Market Harborough (East Midlands Railway)
Hitchin (Great Northern)
Tottenham Hale (Greater Anglia)
London King’s Cross (LNER)
Northampton (London North Western Railway)
Holmes Chapel (Northern)
Vauxhall/Waterloo/Clapham Junction (South Western Railway)
Brixton/Deptford/New Cross (Southeastern)
East Dulwich/Blackfriars,/St Pancras/Victoria (Southern)
Nunhead/Tooting (Thameslink) and Canley (West Midlands Railway)
Which? found the services offered by different ticket machines could vary significantly, with ‘passengers often facing restricted choice and as a result, higher prices’.
According to the consumer watchdog, one of the key reasons why tickets from machines are often more expensive is because most don’t offer ‘advance’ fares, cheaper tariffs which are available for buying in advance of travel.
Depending on the route, these can even be available up to 10 minutes before departure. However, just five of 15 machines tested by Which? offered them.
Which? also claims ‘some machines may also lead to passengers unwittingly missing out on cheaper fares’. At first glance, many machines visited by Which?’s mystery shoppers didn’t appear to sell off-peak tickets at peak times.
When a mystery shopper visited Hitchin and looked for a one-way ticket to York later that day, the only option they found was an anytime single priced at £133, even though the time they would be travelling would qualify for an off-peak fare.
When looking online, the journey could be booked through the Trainline for just £55 off-peak, with the added advantage of using split ticketing to cut the cost.
Great Northern, the train operator responsible for the machines at Hitchin, said off-peak tickets for same-day travel could be found by selecting the ‘tickets for future travel’ button on the machine’s homepage.
Which? said: ‘Many travellers are likely to be caught out by this quirk, given future travel is usually considered to apply to a date in the future. Even then, the lack of split ticketing would have resulted in more expensive fare.’
In all, just a third of stations the Which? visited had the most advanced smart ticket machines – but these don’t offer split ticketing. They do however offer real-time information and can sell tickets up to three months in advance – functions many machines lack.
The consumer watchdog also said train passengers could also be ‘easily caught out by their ticket validity, with many machines often not making it clear what times and which services certain tickets are valid for’.
If there is no one at the station available to ask for help, passengers risk a £50 penalty fare plus the price of a new ticket for their journey.
Most ticket machines Which? visited also lacked timetable information, making it difficult to plan an unfamiliar journey. This was the case at the UK’s busiest station, Waterloo.
Using machines also proved problematic for many of the mystery shoppers trying to book tickets weeks in advance. For example, Great Western machines at major stations, including Oxford and Paddington, only sold tickets for same day and next-day journeys.
Which? noted that online fares do not include any booking fees, which may apply to advance bookings on Trainline.com.
One in six of the 1,766 train stations under the Department for Transport’s control has a full-time ticket office; 40 per cent are staffed part time, and 43 per cent don’t have a ticket office at all
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘The price differences we found between booking online and using station ticket machines were simply astounding.
‘Millions of tickets are purchased using ticket machines every year, meaning that huge numbers of us are potentially paying significantly more than we need to when we commute to work or visit friends and family across the country.
‘Wherever possible we’d recommend booking train tickets online for the cheapest options, but that won’t be possible for everyone. Significant numbers of elderly people don’t have internet access at all – leaving them with little choice but to run the gauntlet of ticket machines, which either don’t offer the best prices, or make it difficult to find the appropriate fares.’
When reached for comment, RDG, Northern and London Northwestern declined.
GWR told Which? that ticket machines are not intended to provide the same range of tickets as online or in-person sales, instead offering ‘ticket collection following a digital sale’ or ‘walk-up fares’ prior to departure
GWR told Which? that ticket machines are not intended to provide the same range of tickets as online or in-person sales, instead offering ‘ticket collection following a digital sale’ or ‘walk-up fares’ prior to departure. It also told Which? that ‘current regulations do not allow train operators to recommend split tickets from ticket machines or ticket offices’.
Great Northern (part of GTR – responsible for Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express) added: ‘Our ticket machines are optimised to give people fast service for the simple journeys that most people are making. If off-peak were to be placed on the home screen, customers might easily select an invalid ticket if they were in a rush.’
East Midlands Railway told Which? it has installed a number of smart kiosks across its network and is ensuring customers are able to board and buy their ticket on the train or at their destination if necessary.
The Department for Transport said that the need for modernisation of fares and ticketing was raised in the consultation on ticket office closures and will ‘seek to support the industry to modernise ticket machines’.