Rising costs, declining service: The shrinkflation of the UK’s rail services

by | Mar 3, 2024

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Rail fares have been rising year-on-year since 2021. This year will be the third year in a row that prices increase by more than 4.5%.

Train cancellations have been getting worse throughout the same period, with 4.94% of all planned trains partially or completely cancelled in 2023.

Almost 1 in 7 (13.7%) of all planned train journeys were delayed during 2023.

 
 

New research from personal finance comparison site finder.com analyses how increasing rail fares in the UK have correlated with the percentage of train delays and cancellations over recent years. With prices set to rise once again by 4.9% in 2024, this will be the third year in a row that rail fares have increased by more than 4.5%. But as these prices have gone up, so has the frequency of train delays and cancellations.

The research reveals that while customers have been paying more for rail travel over the past few years, the service they’ve received has got progressively worse. The percentage of trains that were eventually cancelled or partially cancelled in 2021 sat at 4.18%. In 2022, this rose to 4.76% and, by 2023, this figure had risen to 4.94%. Train delays were also on the rise throughout the same period, with 6.6% of trains facing delays in 2021, 10.3% of trains delayed in 2022 and a staggering 13.7% of trains delayed in 2023.

Meanwhile, the amount that customers are shelling out for this poor service has been consistently rising over the same period. These fares initially increased by a modest 1.2% in 2021, before rising again by 4.8% in 2022. In 2023, these prices rose once more by a significant 5.7%. 

 
 

Rail passengers are set to suffer from yet another price hike of 4.9% from 3 March 2024, despite the ongoing disruption to UK train services due to severe weather, rail works, strikes and industrial action.

YearRail fares price increase% of trains cancelled% of trains delayed
20211.20%4.18%6.60%
20224.80%4.76%10.30%
20235.70%4.94%13.70%

Commenting on the findings, Louise Bastock, financial wellness expert at finder.com said:

The rail network in the UK has long been the topic of many disgruntled conversations – and it looks like there’s no end in sight for consumers. If you’re likely to be impacted by these price hikes, here are some tips to help bring costs down:

 
 

Purchase your tickets in advance – I advise any customers with travel plans within the next 12 weeks to purchase their tickets before midnight on 2 March to lock in a cheaper price ahead of the increases. If this isn’t possible, it’s still always best to buy your train tickets as far in advance as possible, as fares generally go up the closer you get to the travel date. 

Use a railcard – Railcards are one of the most cost-effective ways to save money on rail fares as the money you spend on it can sometimes be earned back in as little as one journey. There are many different types of railcard available, so do your research to see if you might be eligible. 

Take advantage of split fares – You can save money on your travel by splitting your journey across multiple tickets for cheaper fares. Some booking platforms, such as Trainline, make this even easier by automatically showing split ticketing options for your journey at a cheaper price. 

Set up alerts – Trainline now offers a ticket alert system which allows you to request advance notice when tickets for a specific journey go on sale. If you know that you will be travelling in future, or you regularly take a certain route, it’s worth setting up an alert just in case you can find a cheaper ticket.

If you’re still struggling with the higher prices, a great way to make some extra money with very little effort is to take advantage of some of the lucrative bank switching deals on offer. Currently, you can get £200 paid straight into your account by switching your current account to Natwest or RBS with their latest offer, so long as you meet the eligibility criteria. Switching is simple, and the money can be in your new account within as little as 7 days of meeting the requirements. 

Methodology:

Data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) was used to gather information on the number of trains partially cancelled, fully cancelled or delayed between the period of 2021 – 2023. This was then compared with the number of trains that were planned over the same period to find out the percentage of delays and cancellations. Fare price increases were also obtained from the ORR. 

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