If you’ve just purchased a train ticket, you may well be feeling a little aggrieved.

That’s because train fares have just risen by 4.9%, despite the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

While this is under the current rate of inflation and the rise was delayed from January it’s still a cold comfort to commuters.

Yet the service when we get on trains – if we can get on them at all – has often been appalling over the last few years. Passengers have faced unprecedented rates of cancellations, massively overcrowded trains and dirty or substandard services.

Here’s my guide on how to save a bit of cash – and how to claim it back too.

How to I save cash on train tickets?

Buying in advance is the best way to save some cash for the occasional traveller, though this isn’t an option for the majority of journeys or for regular commuters.

As a very general rule, the earlier you book the better the deal. Though anyone who regularly commutes home for Christmas will know that waiting for the new timetables and tickets to be announced can be frustratingly close to the date of travel. Many train companies allow you to sign up for notifications when the new timetable and tickets are due to go on sale, so I’d encourage you to sign up for these alerts – and renew them regularly too.

If you buy up to four months in advance, you’ll find the best ticket offers. I’ve not been able to get any information on how many cheap tickets are actually available at different times, though most readers tell me that the best deals are few and far between these days.

Rail cards are a great idea – and one that is often overlooked by people who aren’t under 16, students or retired. In fact, there’s a wide range of travel cards for all kinds of people. For example, if you have a partner or regular commuting buddy, then a Two Together card can save you a third off each journey if you travel together and it only costs £30 a year.

Fare splitting apps have been around for about a decade now. This is complicated to explain, but in short, because of the ludicrous pricing of train fares, it might be cheaper to split your journey in to separate tickets by booking between different stops on the way – despite sitting on the same train. There are loads of websites that do the hard work for you, like Split My Fare or Trainsplit. You might not get seat reservations though, which would be fine if some lines weren’t so overcrowded.

Finally, the pandemic ushered in many changes to our lives. Rail companies realised that annual travel passes weren’t good value for money for people who work from home half of their time. So new, flexible passes and season tickets are now available that allow you to travel for set numbers of days at a lower cost. You’ll need to have a pretty stable work life to commit to a longer duration pass, but you can save loads.

How do I claim back money if my train is cancelled or delayed?

If a train is cancelled, then in theory, you are entitled to your money back without fees from the train company. For reasons that are lost on me, you may need to produce your original ticket to prove you booked.

If you will allow me a brief rant – this is bonkers. Train companies have the details of your booking, your booking reference, the train you’re traveling on, if it was late, why it was late and by how long. There is no reason whatsoever for having to provide all of this information. Some train companies have ludicrously long application processes for refunds too. A recent refund I applied for required me to click through ten screens and enter in all of the information I just mentioned (and more). It took just five clicks to buy the ticket originally.

Annoying though it may be, you’ll need to provide this information to get your money back. If you print your tickets, then I’d recommend photographing all of them for your records. Stay by the machine until it prints your receipt too.

Just to compound things, the refund you’ll get depends on a variety of factors. National Rail confirms all businesses will offer refunds, but what you get deepens on:

  • which train company you travelled with – different companies have different schemes, but they all offer compensation
  • the type of ticket you have – for example, compensation for a single Day ticket is calculated differently than that for a 7-Day Season ticket
  • the length of the delay in arriving at your destination – each train company has its own compensation threshold, which will be detailed in their Passenger’s Charter on their website. For example, if you are delayed by over an hour, you will generally receive more compensation than if you were delayed by 15 to 30 minutes

In theory, you can claim a refund for season or flexi-season tickets where you can’t travel too. The way this is calculated is pro-rata and is rather complex, but again, you can start the process through the train operator website. They can charge an admin fee of up to £10 though.

Getting a refund for a delay is also possible. Step forward ‘Delay Repay!’ This works in a similar way to your cancelled train refund process. Head to the train operator’s website and follow the online process. The delay is worked out on the basis of the arrival time versus what it says in the timetable. But compensation can begin at the 15-minute delay point so it’s well worth doing. Some train firms offer refunds for delays while not being part of the delay repay scheme, so don’t give up.

Can I get compensation for other things?

Of course, there are a range of other things that you can complain about with your train service, though most people don’t take things further. I’d strongly encourage you to do so though, because the more people who take the time to register complaints, the bigger the message that gets sent to the train firm.

Train companies should also address:

  • Accessibility to people with disabilities or who need support using the network.
  • Station services and management
  • Onboard services
  • Timetabling and punctuality
  • Fares and availability of tickets
  • Poor service and complaint handling
  • Staff conduct
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • The quality of the train itself

In fact, if you’ve paid for a service and you don’t think you’re getting it, you’re entitled to make a complaint. What’s more, there’s a Rail Ombudsman that you can go to if you are not satisfied with how the business has responded to your complaint too – and it’s free! 

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James

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