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Simon Calder reveals how to get train tickets for £3 in the Great British Rail Sale

A temporary train ticket sale of heavily discounted rail fares is under way.

The government is hoping the Great British Rail Sale will stimulate demand for rail travel.

Rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “Over a million tickets on the railway will be available up to half price.

“We want to try and entice more people on the railways to go and take a city break, go and visit their friends and family and go and explore the wonderful countryside and really get them onto the railways. Because we’re keen to grow the railways.”

Post-pandemic changes to commuting patterns has resulted in a dramatic reduction in revenue – around 20 per cent on pre-Covid levels. As a result, taxpayers are subsidising train travel by an additional £2 billion annually.

Mr Merriman said: “People’s working patterns have changed, and in many regards that won’t come back and that’s why it’s really important that we look at the railway as a seven-day offer and particularly growing our leisure market.”

The government says that the last such promotion attracted 70,000 travellers who had not used trains since the pandemic.

But efforts to entice new passengers to the railway are hampered by the extreme disarray of the industry.

Avanti West Coast Pendolino 390155  passes over Docker Viaduct,  with 1000 Glasgow Central to London Euston (Provided)
Avanti West Coast Pendolino 390155 passes over Docker Viaduct, with 1000 Glasgow Central to London Euston (Provided)

The first national strikes since the 1980s have been disrupting travel since June 2021. The next round of walk-outs by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union begins on the first day on which travel is allowed under the Rail Sale terms.

There have also been repeated infrastructure failures and storm-related disruption.

These are the key questions and answers about the Rail Sale:

What is the Great British Rail Sale?

Simon Calder on what you need to know

Book by 29 January for deeply discounted travel on advance tickets (and a few off-peak fares) for journeys from 30 January to 15 March inclusive. From research done by The Independent, it appears that each Rail Sale fare is a fixed, low price.

The deal applies to the rail firms that are controlled by the Department for Transport (DfT).

They include intercity operators Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, LNER and TransPennine Express.

ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Merseyrail and “open-access” operators such as Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo are not involved.

The organiser, Atoc Ltd, says: “Tickets are not available on all routes and at some peak times and are not offered by all train companies.”

What sort of tickets are included?

Almost all of the available tickets are advance fares. These require committing ahead to a specific train. Where a participating train company does not offer advance tickets, off-peak fares may be offered as an alternative.

Just like airline tickets, the price varies depending on demand.

GWR appears to be selling Cardiff to London Paddington tickets, including peaks, for £42 one-way, with Bristol to/from London at a flat £32.50.

Some tickets are extremely cheap – particularly if you are happy to trade speed for savings. Between Southampton and London Victoria, Southern is selling seats for just £3 – though this journey takes twice as long as the South Western Railway journey to London Waterloo, for which the fare is £9.

Avanti West Coast, which runs trains from London Euston to the West Midlands via northwest England and Scotland, has badged discount tickets with a “Rail Sale” message. From Glasgow Central to Birmingham, the fare is £20.50, while from Manchester Piccadilly to London the price is £27.

Commuters stand in front of an information sign detailing strike action at Manchester Piccadilly train station (PA) (PA Wire)
Commuters stand in front of an information sign detailing strike action at Manchester Piccadilly train station (PA) (PA Wire)

Is the discount available for any journey?

Absolutely not. Most tickets do not qualify, including anytime, off-peak (except in a few cases), seasons and flexi-seasons.

Can I make a connecting journey?

Connections should be possible when booking direct on the same operator. But connecting journeys on different train operators do not appear to qualify.

Do railcard or child discounts apply?

Unlike the 2022 Rail Sale, railcard discounts do not apply. But children aged 5-15 travel half-price.

Tickets please: Great Western Railway hub, London Paddington (Simon Calder)
Tickets please: Great Western Railway hub, London Paddington (Simon Calder)

Can I book in first class?

Yes, at least on LNER. London to Newcastle is £22.40 in standard and £49.40 in first; an uplift of 120 per cent appears to be the average.

In addition, individual train operators may have upgrade offers that can be used in connection with a discounted ticket.

How do I book?

  • Direct with the operator, which makes things easier if there is a problem with the journey and may qualify for a loyalty bonus, e.g. LNER Perks.

  • Through a different operator (e.g. buying CrossCountry through South Western Railway) if you have a preferred website.

  • Through a third-party retailer such as The Trainline, which charges fees but has the benefit of automatically “splitting tickets” if it will save you money.

People with access issues are able to seek help at the ticket office of a staffed railway station.

How quick should I buy?

As soon as you can. One million tickets may sound like a large number, but compared with the usual numbers of rail journeys in a 38-day spell (more than 160 million) it is tiny. Many trains will sell out of cheap tickets very quickly.