The point of public transport should be simple. It is cheaper and easier than private transport, more environmentally friendly and allows you to get where you need to be at a sensible cost and on a regular schedule. However, a case study by the co-owner of shows that in some cases it’s more cost effective to buy a car and drive than it is to pay for a train ticket.

In theory, the idea of buying a car, making sure it is taxed, insured and with enough fuel should not come anywhere near the cost of travelling by train. The sad truth is that some train companies are profiteering on certain routes at peak times to such an extent that this has now become a reality.

London to Bristol – the story

Tom lived in London and wanted to visit another co-owner of the website who lives in Bristol. The quote for a return ticket at peak time from London to Bristol was £218.10. He decided to see if it was possible to buy a car and drive it for less than this quite substantial amount of money for such a short journey.

First, he did some research and found a car – a 1997 Honda Civic that he bought for just £80 with six months left on the MOT. The road tax for the vehicle was £81.38 and the cost of insuring it for a day was £20.43. The car used £25 worth of petrol for the journey. A total cost of £206.81 – saving £11.29 versus the cost of a train ticket.

The bigger picture

Added to this, Tom pointed out that at the end of the experiment he still had the car which could be resold for a similar amount or possibly more. The car ran well, and he was quite impressed with it.

Alternatively, if he wished to do so, he could continue to pay for the insurance and have use of the vehicle for longer. There are added costs to be considered with this, such as servicing and ongoing petrol costs, but ultimately using and driving a car on intercity routes in peak times beats trains on cost hands down.

Of course, this is not the whole picture. For starters, the experiment was based on peak time trains; if you travel at off-peak times, there can be a significant saving in the cost of the rail ticket. The Independent looked at the price and found an off-peak return was just £140.

Then there’s the time factor. Driving wasn’t an easy job because the M25 was very busy and there were accidents and roadworks on the M4. The journey in the car took 3 hours 30 minutes while the trip on the train was just 1 hour 43 minutes.

Other public transport options

While the case study is an interesting one, it doesn’t cover all the public transport options available. The rail journey in question is a straight route from the capital to Bristol. However, if you take a staggered trip, it can make a saving, as frequent rail users know. A journey that went via Salisbury, for example, cost £73.30 for an Anytime fare.

Then there’s the bus. National Express operates frequent services with flexible fares of £48.80 from Victoria Coach station to Bristol. There is a new on-demand service offered by Sn-Ap that has a maximum ticket price of £25 return

A growing problem

Tom’s experiment highlights an increasing problem across the UK, which is the fact that it can be cheaper to run a car than to use public transport and especially trains at peak times. Train fares at peak times are often price matched to plane fares to compete for the business traveller, and therefore the cost has been steadily increasing in recent years.

This rising price has also meant more people are doing just what Tom did, buying a car instead of using public transport. It is why there is a higher number of vehicles on the road than ever and why congestion and pollution problems are at an all-time high.

Figures show that the number of cars on UK roads reached a new highest figure in 2016 of 31.7 million, an increase from 31.5 million the previous year and from 29.9 million ten years before that. As more people turn to inexpensive and often polluting cars to avoid the higher cost of public transport, this figure could continue to grow.

If the Government are serious about tackling road pollution, they need to look at the cost of public transport during peak times and intercity routes. Train operators have been getting away with this for many years now.

Labour is looking at the drastic step of making all rail companies publicly owned again and reducing prices, so they are more in line with other Western European countries, such as France and German, both nationally owned where fares are 30-40% the price compared to the UK. Doing this one could have more environmental benefit and reduce pollution far more than taxing drivers of polluting cars to the hilt.

Do you know of a train route that costs over £200 return? Have you switched to driving because of the expense of rail? How did you feel about the cost of your journey or season ticket? Let us know in the comments.

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