How an £8.00 ticket caused a fuss over London and Manchester rail fares

Take one single train ticket, then add the most powerful elected mayor outside of London. Introduce another single train ticket for a journey within Greater London. Simmer for 24 hours or more on social media then add to existing North-South Divide and Us Versus London arguments till the end of time.

If you follow the social media channels of Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, there was one issue that set the news agenda for the most part of yesterday [21 October 2021].

A single train ticket from Newton-le-Willows to Manchester railway station.

Why did this ticket attract such attraction? It was the price of a single fare between the two points. A fare of £8.00 for a single journey, which is enough for two pints in most pubs (or four at a J.D. Wetherspoon establishment). In most cases, the fare is treated as being outside of the Greater Manchester boundary if its last stop is Manchester Oxford Road or Deansgate, despite having a fair chunk of its mileage in the city region. which is effectively a cross-boundary one. If you’re lucky, the ticket covers Patricroft if you take the stopping train.

The infamous single ticket that Andy Burnham picked up was for an off-peak single fare. Just to confuse things, the NORTHERN (Grant Shapps’ capitalisation before you ask!) website has several more fare options from Manchester Piccadilly to Newton-le-Willows which are as follows:

  • First Class Advance Single: £15.40 (valid on Transpennine Express services);
  • Standard Class Advance Single: £7.20 (TPE Only; £3.30 for NORTHERN Only ticket);
  • Standard Class Anytime Day Single: £8.60 (or £8.30 for Transpennine Express only version);
  • First Class Anytime Day Single: £16.90.

For a straightforward journey, a not-so-magnificent seven fares to choose from – and four different advance purchase fares at that. To add insult to injury, the Anytime Day Single to Wigan North Western is £6.90 from Manchester city centre, whether you go via Bolton, Atherton or Chat Moss. Apart from being £1.10 cheaper, Newton-le-Willows station is about a mile from its junction with the West Coast Main Line.

Perhaps a better argument for a simple cross-boundary trip like the one shown is the amount of confusing fares. Unlike a train journey within Greater Manchester, Newton-le-Willows to Manchester Piccadilly by rail doesn’t trigger the evening peak hour premium whereas Wigan North Western to Manchester Piccadilly would. Newton-le-Willows to Huyton would as evening peak hour restrictions apply in Merseyside. (And yes, there’s another post on the sheer expense of short distance cross-boundary fares).

The aforementioned journey takes 15 minutes to complete. Since Andy Burnham’s tweet saw the light of day, other passengers have found more expensive fares per mile.

The second passenger decried the lack of buses between Stalybridge and Greenfield. After 7pm, the 356 route stops running between Greenfield and Stalybridge whereas it retains an evening service between Denshaw and Greenfield.

What has attracted much attention is the poor value of money that Greater Mancunian rail passengers get compared with their peers in Greater London. From Stalybridge to Greenfield, the £4.30 fare works out at 54p a minute for the eight minute journey. Therefore, what you can pay for an hour’s travel in Greater London (single fare) only gets you 2 minutes and 45 seconds on that line.

By bus, it isn’t much better on the 356 if you go for the single fare which would be pretty similar with a journey time of 20 minutes. For a return journey, you’ll need a £6.00 Any Bus Day Saver which (unlike the GM Rail Ranger and off-peak fares of course) is valid in peak hours. That would cover a myriad other buses in Greater Manchester from Arriva to Warrington’s Own Buses from 4am to midnight. Or the equivalent of four one hour long singles in Greater London.

For your pound, you get less bus or train for your money in Greater Manchester than in Greater London. The 356 is only once hourly for a start, or every two hours on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Transpennine Express’ Huddersfield stopper is also once hourly, but seven days a week. With buses and trains at present day frequencies, that one-hour single would expire quickly if your next bus in more than ten minutes away from your last one. Would a similar train journey between two places of comparable population size in Greater London have a frequency that is more akin to the 216 bus (every 10 minutes) instead of the 356 (every hour)?

Funding: the elephant in the room

The most obvious reason as to why fares outside Greater London are cheaper than anywhere else in the UK is due to funding. Recent reports have shown how transport spending in Greater London is substantially greater than the rest of the United Kingdom. In comparison with the rest of the UK, Greater Manchester does alright; against London, it is still at North West Counties Football League levels compared with the capital’s UEFA Champions League standard system. Per head, transport funding in some parts of England is less than a tin of baked beans in ALDI.

At London levels of funding, Greater Manchester could do wonders with its buses, trams and trains. A £1.55 one-hour ticket would be life-changing – especially in a city region where you cannot get a child’s fare for that little cost. Many of the city region’s bus routes are 40 to 60 minutes long, which means a return trip from Ashton-under-Lyne to Rochdale could cost you £3.10 instead of £5.00 on a single operator rover ticket. If there was still a 41 from Tennyson Avenue to Dukinfield Town Hall, you could use such a ticket to drop off your books at Dukinfield Library. The journey could cost you 77.5p each way if the outward and return times are right.

Since rail privatisation, the narrative is that fares have risen faster in 24 years than they did under 24 years of British Rail. Unlike BR under Messrs Marsh, Parker, (Robert Basil and Bob) Reids, and Welsby, privatised rail franchises were granted twice as much subsidy. Under the 1968 Transport Act, Passenger Transport Executives and their successors are mandated to make public transport an attractive alternative to the car. That has been undermined by bus deregulation and departmental cuts.

In the last decade, departmental cuts imposed on Transport for Greater Manchester has seen some changes to off-peak rail travel. The most notable development was the introduction of an evening peak, which means an off-peak fare from Stalybridge to Bolton couldn’t be used from 4.00pm to 6.30pm as well as before 9.30am on weekdays. From Stalybridge to Chorley, there is no evening peak premium.

The other cut that had to be made were to its rover tickets. The GM Rail Ranger fell in line with peak hour changes, whereas the Evening Ranger was abolished. Also scrapped was the weekend perk that season ticket holders got in Greater Manchester, where you could use your Stalybridge to Bolton season ticket across the whole of Greater Manchester. Retained was free parking at all of Greater Manchester stations, which some saw as a subsidy to those who could afford to take the train. When parking charges were briefly introduced at Guide Bridge station, there was howls of protest.

At present, Transport for Greater Manchester has no control over rail fares in its city region. The Department for Transport sets the fares though TfGM and other Integrated Transport Authorities can subsidise part of the fares.

Where next?

When peak hour restrictions were added to evening trains, its original plan was to cut overcrowding without the need for new trains. It was hoped that pricing out commuters could improve capacity, on the assumption they’ll consider other modes (bus, tram, bicycle or – as is often the case – private car). Years after the imposition of evening peak restrictions in Greater Manchester, our working habits have changed. COVID has made working from home a reality instead of whimsical fantasy.

Cutting single bus fares to £1.55 would revolutionise the way we work, rest and play in Greater Manchester. Especially for short hop journeys where £1.55 wouldn’t even get you to the next bus stop. For a child, £1.55 would only take you from Ashton-under-Lyne Interchange to Park Cake on the 409 – or a few yards short. What is forgotten in these arguments is the number of fares caps and provision for cheap travel for under-16s. In TfL boundaries, there are fare caps which differ across zones. A Zone 1 to 2 fare cap is £7.40 across all modes of transport. Zones 1 to 4 is £10.60 – again, across all modes of transport that would drastically cut costs and transfer times.

The need for making fares more affordable is an absolute must in our city region. Cutting the cost of cross-boundary should also be considered. Especially if you’re in your late teens, live in Glossop and study at Tameside College – where adult fares cover the entire 237 journey to Beaufort Road. If you live in Bolton and work in Blackburn or Chorley, the car is an absolute must for convenience, faster journey and running costs. Yet the two towns are served by train routes with potential for better frequencies and more affordable fares. What about having a ticket that can be used on NORTHERN’s trains to Darwen as well as Blackburn Bus Company’s 1 route?

What we have learned from Andy Burnham’s criticism of a single from Manchester to Newton-le-Willows is how expensive short distance cross-boundary travel can be at times. All of which is thanks to disjointed ticketing systems and ‘dead zones’ between city regions where fares aren’t supported the same as those within an Integrated Transport Authority’s boundaries. The same can be true with our buses which have over 150 different types of fares across Greater Manchester, varying from operator to operator.

Just for the record…

A look at some of Greater Manchester’s not-so-cheap return fares. (All details correct at the time of press).

Rail fares within Transport for Greater Manchester rail boundary

  • Orrell to Greenfield: £12.50, Anytime Day Return (average journey time of two hours with two changes);
  • Blackrod to Hadfield: £12.50, Anytime Day Return (average journey time of one hour and 45 minutes with one change);
  • Littleborough to Bramhall: £12.50, Anytime Day Return;
  • Glazebrook to Glossop: £11.40, Anytime Day Return (average journey of one hour and twenty minutes with two changes);
  • Mossley to Stalybridge (4 minutes): £3.70, Anytime Day Return (no Off Peak Return Fares exist for this journey – 46.2p a minute for a return journey);
  • Hyde North to Hyde Central (3 minutes): £2.90, Off-Peak Day Return (58p per minute); £3.50, Anytime Day Return (70p per minute);
  • Hale to Altrincham (2 minutes): £2.90, Off-Peak Day Return (72.5p per minute); £3.50, Anytime Day Return (87.5p per minute);
  • Ardwick to Manchester Piccadilly (3 to 4 minutes): £3.60, Anytime Day Return (no Off Peak Return Fares exist for this journey – 51.4p a minute for a return journey);
  • Stalybridge to Greenfield (8 minutes): £6.50, Anytime Day Return (no Off Peak Return Fares exist for this journey – 40.6p a minute for a return journey);

Other Cross-boundary rail fares from Transport for Greater Manchester rail boundary

  • Marsden to Greenfield (7 miles, 7 minutes): £6.70, Off-Peak Day Return (47.8 per minute – also 47.8p per mile); £7.90, Anytime Day Return (56.4p per minute – also 56p per mile);
  • Walsden to Littleborough (4 miles): £3.80, Off-Peak Day Return (31.6p per minute – 47.5p per mile); £4.50 Anytime Day Return (37.5p per minute – 56.2p per mile).
  • Blackrod to Adlington (3 minutes): £2.60, Off-Peak Day Return (33.3p per minute); £3.10, Anytime Day Return (51.7p per minute);
  • Bromley Cross to Entwistle (7 minutes): £3.00, Off-Peak Day Return (23.1p per minute); £3.60, Anytime Day Return (27.9p per minute);
  • Appley Bridge to Parbold (4 minutes): £3.20, Off-Peak Day Return (40p); £3.80, Anytime Day Return (47.5p);
  • Orrell to Upholland (3 minutes): £2.80, Off-Peak Day Return (46.7p per minute); £3.40, Anytime Day Return (56.7p per minute);
  • Bryn to Garswood (3 minutes): £2.50, Off-Peak Day Return (41.7p per minute); £3.00, Anytime Day Return (50p per minute);
  • Strines to New Mills Central (3 minutes): £3.60, Off-Peak Day Return (60p per minute); £4.30, Anytime Day Return (71.7p per minute);
  • Middlewood to Disley (4 minutes): £3.60, Off-Peak Day Return (45p per minute); £4.50, Anytime Day Return (56.2p per minute);
  • Glazebrook to Birchwood (4 minutes): £2.80, Off-Peak Day Return (35p per minute); £3.40, Anytime Day Return (42.5p per minute);
  • Hale to Ashley (3 minutes): £3.80, Off-Peak Day Return (63.3p per minute); £4.50, Anytime Day Return (75p per minute);
  • Bramhall to Poynton (3 minutes): £3.80, Off-Peak Day Return (63.3p per minute); £4.50, Anytime Day Return (75p per minute);
  • Cheadle Hulme to Handforth (4 minutes): £3.60, Off-Peak Day Return (45p per minute); £4.30, Anytime Day Return (53.7p per minute);
  • Manchester Airport to Styal (7 minutes): £4.00, Off-Peak Day Return (28.6p per minute); £5.30, Anytime Day Return (37.8p per minute);
  • Wigan North Western to Euxton Balshaw Lane (9 minutes): £5.60, Off-Peak Day Return (31.1p per minute); £6.60, Anytime Day Return (36.7p per minute).

S.V., 22 October 2021.

Image credit:

Hyde North station image by Rept0n1x, 2013 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

One thought on “Greater Manchester’s Rail Fares: An Un-Fare Advantage?

  1. I think it’s worth stating one very important thing about the funding of Transport for London’s fares. And that’s that the Westminster government stopped giving any operational subsidy some years ago. Obviously the pandemic has changed that situation, but Westminster doesn’t subsidise fares in Greater London. It doesn’t even pay for road maintenance. London’s fares are regulated by TfL, and the fare box has to cover a LOT of things other parts of the country get from Westminster.

    As for the railways, many of the rail companies in the South East operated (prior pandemic) without subsidy. South West Trains was a classic. They had to pay money to the government to run that service.

    I do firmly believe fares outside London are crazy, and they need to be reduced be they local or national. But I also think it’s important to remember two things. London gets cheaper fares because of political control and spend. And it has to fund all this itself. If they can make public transport as popular as in London, one day Manchester may well find it has to do the same.


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