Fly away from rail misery

Fly away from rail misery

The last few months have seen a growing focus on the role of rail travel in today's society. While there's no doubt that the train represents a convenient way of getting around, questions persist over the ability of the rail service to cope with growing demand while keeping fares relatively inexpensive. Can flying provide a viable alternative to using the UK's railways?

The trouble with trains

Rail-related issues have hit the headlines relatively frequently in the last few months, mainly due to the rise in train fares that have led to some loud protests from rail users. Earlier this year, train users experienced fare rises above the rate of inflation, with some facing increases of up to 11 per cent.

The anger this has prompted is perhaps best personified in a recent protest in south-west England, where commuters travelling between Bath and Bristol were urged to refuse to show their tickets to conductors as a way of expressing their fury at ongoing problems such as frequent overcrowding, delays and cancellations - exacerbated by the ticket price increases.

And let's not forget the misery caused by the cancellations resulting from overrunning engineering works on the west coast mainline over the new year period.

The solution?

For many commuters - those who are only able to get to and from work via train - the only option in the face of rising fares and delays is to grit their teeth and bear the financial pain. However, for those who make use of the UK's railways for infrequent trips - such as a weekend or week away elsewhere in Britain - it might be an idea to see if taking a flight instead can save money and hassle.

A spokesperson for Bournemouth Airport comments: "The choice [between rail travel and flying] is always there for the customer - and I think that's the great thing. The difficulty is the hike in rail fares.

"I think it's great that the consumer has that choice. Some people will always choose to fly and possibly people will always choose to go by rail."

Some of the most painful times for rail delays fall on public holidays - bank holiday weekends can result in trains that are more overcrowded and therefore more susceptible to delays than usual. So the next time you're planning a bank holiday weekend in London, Manchester or another British city, why not check if it would be more beneficial to fly?

Let's take the example of the last Easter bank holiday weekend, which is likely to see travellers crowd onto trains and planes on the Thursday evening immediately prior to the bank holiday, as well as on Easter Monday. One particularly popular rail route is that between London and Manchester.

A quick search reveals that a return flight departing from Heathrow Airport to Manchester on the evening of Thursday March 20th - the day before Good Friday - and returning on Monday March 24th can cost around £93 with British Airways*.

This might seem steep until you try to check the equivalent rail fare from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly. A search on shows that there are in fact no return tickets available, leaving you to pick two single tickets instead.

And while a few outbound tickets at about £14 were still available about seven weeks in advance), the cheapest return ticket is nearly £65. Add to that the fact that the return journey requires several changes that stretch the trip time to a colossal four and a half hours compared with about one hour and ten minutes by plane, and that if you'd booked closer to the time you're unlikely find any of the cheapest tickets still available, and you wouldn't be surprised if the rail traveller taking this journey chose to switch to a flight instead.

This doesn't just apply to the London-Manchester route. Another popular journey is that between London and Edinburgh, which can cost around £92 for the same return flight times as above by air with bmi. Meanwhile, the same journey by train can take up to six hours and 45 minutes to be completed, with up to two changes and a fare of £164.50 - which is for a business saver ticket, the cheapest available at the time of writing.

And bear in mind that these flight searches do not include low-cost airlines - which may be even cheaper than the air fares cited above.

More choice than ever before

Of course, it's entirely up to you whether you pick the train or a plane - cost aside, you might simply have a personal preference either way. And it's not always guaranteed that a flight will be cheaper if just one airline is operating on the route. Plus, it's likely that some will simply not want to deal with issues such as security and luggage considerations.

But for those who feel that rail travel is not as convenient as it used to be, flying can result in relatively less hassle - and be kinder on the wallet. So it's always worth at least checking beforehand whether it will be cheaper to go by air.

As more airlines enter the domestic flight fray, it's likely that even more options will present themselves to travellers, according to the Air Transport Users Council. A spokesperson for the organisation, James Fremantle, says that there has been a "massive" increase in flights over the last decade - a trend that will continue.

"When the European Union liberalised flights, it meant that airlines could basically fly where and when they wanted to. This liberalisation has allowed the airlines to compete with the trains. The prices have increased on the trains, there is a gap there and they are exploiting it, creating demand and taking passengers away from trains," he comments.

"It does appear that air fares are very competitive compared to rail fares and obviously passengers choose on price. And air travel is quicker as well."

* All prices are based on searches made on and on January 30th 2008.