Jayne Dowle: The train can’t take the strain for holiday families

HAVE you managed to get away this Bank Holiday? Do you have children? If you’ve taken the train to the seaside or maybe to London, have you had to remortgage the house to pay for the fares?

A recent price comparison exercise by campaign group Passenger Focus finds that rail companies are guilty of hiking up the price of train tickets during school holidays. Even the lowest fares on offer are significantly higher than in term time. In some cases, they are even double the price. For example, a family taking a trip from London’s King’s Cross to York
on public-owned East Coast would pay £237 for an Advance saver-ticket this week, dropping to less than half that price at £108.60 a month later in term time.

Just how cynical can you get? As if 
rail travel wasn’t expensive enough, now we hear that bosses are cashing in on those with the least money to spend – families.

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I can foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when rail travel will simply become the preserve of the wealthy. There will be whole families of children who will grow up without even having the experience of getting on a train. I know that rail companies operate as commercial enterprises, not as some kind of theme ride, but come on. This simply isn’t fair.

I know, because I take my two to visit family in Surrey and Kent on a fairly regular basis, that it is now much more economical to go by car. This is even when you factor in diesel and wear 
and tear, not just on the car but on my nerves.

I’d love to let the train take the strain. We have never even attempted the journey by public transport though. And when we went to London for a stopover en route to France last year, it was cheaper to drive there and park in Camden for a week than to purchase return rail tickets – even if we had bought a family railcard. And, to be honest, train tickets are expensive enough as it is. I resent the fact that I am expected to shell out even more money in an effort to actually save it.

Please don’t get me started on the fallacy of “Advance” savers. These are always heralded as the cheapest option by the train companies. Yeah right. Only if you are in the position of knowing exactly where you want to go three months ahead of when you want to go. To the minute, literally, because woe betide you if you miss the train you’re booked on to. You’re looking at astronomical financial penalties more severe than three points on your driving licence.

Prices start low, for sure. Unfortunately, the cheapest tickets always seem to run out just as I want to book them. Sometimes, I’ve even watched the pound signs go up before my very eyes. And as this report found out, no-one knows how many of these “Advance” tickets are available. It’s like trying to book a trip away in some kind of nightmare in which the rules change all the time. If nothing else, the operators should be honest and transparent about what they are selling. We’d expect the same in a shop. Why should they have different rules?

I only hope everyone who is planning to come to Yorkshire for Le Grand Départ of the Tour de France has purchased their rail tickets already. Plans were announced last week to put on extra trains to cope with the expected influx of up to three million visitors to our region in July. It should be an occasion to celebrate, not a time to send visitors into a frenzy of frustration and financial trauma. Especially at an event like this, it makes total sense to take the train and not clog up the roads with motor cars. Yet what choice do the train companies give us?

It’s bad enough that holiday companies up their costs in er, holiday time. In fact, this is such a controversial issue questions have even been asked in the House of Commons, by no less than the Prime Minister himself. Don’t under-estimate the far-reaching consequences of this debate. It’s such a big deal, that David Cameron even suggested staggering the school year to prevent travel firms, airlines and hotels from cashing in on hard-pressed families.

Since the rules on term-time absence were tightened, it can potentially cost parents hundreds of pounds to take their children out of school. All we want to do is enjoy a break together as a family, yet we’re caught between seaside rock and a hard place.

Nothing I say, and I suspect nothing the Prime Minister says, will stop the holiday companies, or indeed the train operators, in their tracks. We can vote with our feet, but if passenger numbers go down, fares will go up to make sure the profits keep rolling in. All we can do is complain. That is if you can find the money for the price of a stamp once you’ve bought four return tickets to London.