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I'm trying to understand the British train ticket pricing system. Worse, I'm trying to game the system. A popular game is to split tickets, but I've found that a combination of two Advance tickets may be cheaper even than the result of split tickets shows.

When I search for trains from Reading to Lancaster, I don't find a lot of Advance tickets. The outward journey shows Anytime or Off-peak, on the return journey there are some Advance tickets. However, if I search for Reading-Wolverhampton and Wolverhampton-Lancaster separately, I do get Advance fares for both directions, and with some puzzling I find fares that add up to £60, or around £28 less than the cheapest fare for a full ticket (discounting one return arriving at 01:35). TrainSplit claims to save me £10 but gives the exact same fair as National Rail.

So, there are Advance tickets Reading-Wolverhampton and Wolverhampton-Lancaster, but not Reading-Lancaster. Why is this? Are Advance tickets only available for direct trains? For trains with a single operator? Or is the entire system so opaque that this question is fundamentally unanswerable?

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    Perhaps it's because the advance tickets are available only in limited numbers, and they sell out more quickly on the Reading-to-Lancaster route. – phoog May 22 '15 at 20:26
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    Generally speaking, advanced tickets are available for a single long distance train, two long distance trains from the same company, or one long distance train plus a local train of any company. Reading-Lancaster needs both Cross Country and Virgin West Coast long distance trains, which is probably why you're struggling :/ – Gagravarr May 23 '15 at 14:11
  • @Gagravarr That would explain it. How do you know this specifically? You could write it up as an answer. – gerrit May 23 '15 at 15:42
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TL;DR - for almost all cases, all trains which permit seat reservations need to be with the same TOC to get a cheap deal

Advanced Purchase tickets on their own are always for specific trains. When you get your ticket, it'll have 2+ parts, one for the route, one saying what trains you have to take (and normally your seat too).

In some cases, the ticket will be an Advanced Purchase & Connections ticket, which allows you to travel on "local" trains at one or both ends of your Advanced Purchase ticket. Not all AP tickets have a +Connections option though, and it tends to only be certain stations that it's offered for.

Next thing to know - on the backend side, there are two kinds of UK train tickets. There are ones valid on any operator, for which the ORCATS system shares the revenue between the different companies who's trains you could take based on seats+trains, and ones valid for only one operator, for which on that operator gets the ticket cash. Secondly, within certain bounds, normal ticket prices between any two stations are priced by a single operator, even if multiple operators might have trains on the route. For example, Oxford to Reading is set by FGW, even though you can pick between FGW and XC trains on that route.

Advanced Purchase tickets are restricted to specific trains. If all of those trains are with the same company, then that TOC can keep all the money. If it's a with connections one, then they'll need to share some of it, which they'd rather not do on a cheap ticket.

So, from Reading to Lancaster, you hit a problem. From Reading north to about Wolverhampton, ticket prices will be set by XC (Cross Country). From Wolverhampton north, that'll be set by VWC (Virgin West Coast). For a Reading to Lancaster complete ticket, they're also set by Virgin West Coast as shown here. While both companies can offer Advanced Purchase tickets for the whole route, they'll have to share the revenue for a fair bit of the ticket, so they won't price it so keenly, and probably won't release very many seats for the "& Connections".

If you book a Reading to Wolverhampton AP ticket (either on a direct train, or one with a change in Birmingham, but either way on only Cross Country trains), then XC will keep all the cash, so will have a good price, and a fair number of cheap tickets available. Likewise, Wolverhampton to Lancaster will be all VWC so they'll do cheap APs.

There are actually Reading to Lancaster AP&Connections tickets defined, for between £21 and £83.40, but for the reasons above they'll probably be hard to find. If you book just when tickets go on sale (normally 90 days out), you might manage to snag one. Otherwise, later, you'll find it easier to get TOC specific non-connections AP tickets with splitting at TOC boundaries, as they tend to have more seats available.

Oh, and another thing to consider - an off-peak single from Reading to Lancaster via Banbury (not via London) is only £49.30, so outside of peak times you'll need to play around a lot with AP tickets to get one cheaper than a flexible ticket!

  • Great answer — but what is TOC? – gerrit May 24 '15 at 10:48
  • Train Operating Company in this case I think. – CMaster May 24 '15 at 11:05
  • After several months of experience, I routinely buy Reading–Birmingham and Birmingham–Lancaster separately. I usually find advance tickets adding up to around £30. I've never seen advance tickets Reading–Lancaster that offer significantly better value than a round trip the whole way, which is close to £100. – gerrit Dec 11 '15 at 13:56
  • Do they do that on purpose to confuse us? my brain hurts now – Ayyash May 12 at 20:20
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Advance tickets are only available in limited numbers and not on all journeys. So it could be that the advance tickets you are interested in are sold out. It's worth pointing out that there is some risk with both splitting tickets and buying advance - advance tickets are only valid on a specific train. If you have to change, and your first train is late enough that you miss the connection, your ticket is no longer valid. (Note - if you have and advance "& connections" ticket, then missing your booked train is acceptable if one of the connections you took to it as part of the same ticket was delayed.)

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    On changing between AP tickets, it's not the case if you've allowed "enough time", see details linked from this question – Gagravarr May 24 '15 at 11:09
  • I can't see a mention of that on the NRE T&Cs. If you fail to be there in time for your train, then doesn't sound like your ticket is worth anything. – CMaster May 24 '15 at 11:52
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    If you fail to be there in time for a non-rail related reason, you're out of luck. If you can show it's due to a different ToC, then the you're ok. From the Conditions of Carriage If you purchase an Advance ticket, you must use that ticket in the train specified when you book your ticket. However, if you miss this service because a previous connecting train service was delayed you will be able to travel on the next service provided by the Train Company with whom you were booked to travel without penalty. – Gagravarr May 24 '15 at 15:58
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    @Gagravarr Note that this still means that getting a separate advance to connect to certain trains is a bad idea - e.g. connecting at York onto Grand Central could easily leave you stuck for two or three hours, while a load of VTEC trains pass that you can't board. – Richard Gadsden Dec 11 '15 at 11:48
  • @RichardGadsden They'll often just stamp your ticket to endorse it onto the other company if there's a large caused-by-trains delay – Gagravarr Dec 11 '15 at 16:39

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