How UK train fares compare to rest of Europe as commuters brace for price hike

Earlier this month, France’s transport minister Clément Beaune announced that fares for some key rail routes would be frozen – it’s good news for anyone planning to attend the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris and cities such as Lyon, Nantes and Bordeaux next summer.

The freeze covers the Ouigo budget high-speed TGV, and also non-high-speed Intercité trains.

Meanwhile, France will also introduce a new rail pass next summer allowing unlimited travel on local TER trains and the non-high-speed Intercités.

Although details are yet to be finalised, it is thought that the pass, costing €49 (£42) per month, will also include travel on buses, trams and underground networks

In the UK, however, rail ticket prices are set to rise by up to eight per cent in March if the Government uses its existing formula for fare increases – aligning them with average earnings growth.

According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in September, average earnings growth in July was eight per cent. (Though the figure is smaller than in Denmark, where fares will rise by up to 13 per cent in January.)

The French pass is being introduced following the success of Germany’s digital Deutschland-Ticket, launched in May, which offers unlimited standard-class travel throughout the country on all types of public transport (except high speed) for €49 per month.

More than 10 million people bought the “D-Ticket” in its first month, and Deutsche Bahn’s regional services saw a 25 per cent rise in passengers, according to Evelyn Palla, boss of commuter service operator DB Regio.

Hungary and Portugal launched similar €49 passes, while Spain ran a similar scheme that has come to an end this month.

The D-Ticket could also be heading for the scrapheap. Although the German government has agreed to fund it to the tune of €1.5bn (£1.29bn) for 2024, not every local authority is seeing its viability and sustainability.

The north-eastern town of Stendal, with a population of around 41,000, will no longer allow the pass to be used on its bus system, including buses to and from the town, from 1 January. According to its local authority, a lack of plans for ongoing financing from federal and state governments means the town could be out of pocket by €40,000 in the first quarter of 2024. Will other local authorities follow suit?

Taking things a step further, Luxembourg, the world’s richest country with a population of 640,000, has been offering free public transport for all since 2020, although travellers can pay to travel first class on trains, including on intercity services.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the rail network offers a variety of railcards which give holders a third off train travel – although restrictions apply.

So how do standard UK fares compete with France and other European countries? Train fares and networks can be complicated and confusing to navigate and understand at the best of times.

We’ve compared the cheapest standard one-way advance fares for off-peak rail tickets available at the start of 2024 for popular journeys of around 400 miles, such as London to Edinburgh, and around 200 miles, such as London to Manchester.

Some of the lowest fares in both the UK and Europe apply to travelling at night – but in seats, as opposed to berths, and sometimes involving changes. However, for the purposes of this comparison we’ve looked at daytime travel on direct trains.

Train tickets for Paris to Avignon are available from €19 (£16.35) (Photo: Getty)

France and Spain had the best prices for long and medium journeys thanks to France’s budget Ouigo TGV service, which also operates several routes in Spain. Fares start at £16.35 (€19) from Paris to Avignon and £7.75 (€9) from Madrid to Valencia.

It’s worth noting that the Ouigos in Spain depart from the main city stations, whereas in France, the cheapest fares often involve catching the trains at a station miles from the city centre.

In 2021, a US transport-related tech company called Fleet Logging calculated the price of a 62-mile rail journey between two major cities in every country and found that the Czech Republic had some of the lowest rail fares in the world after Luxembourg and Georgia – as evidenced by the fare between Prague and Ostrava in this list.

Possibly not for much longer, as it is expected ticket prices will rise by 10 per cent in 2024, following a rise of 15 per cent in 2023.

England, Scotland and Wales came out as the 7th, 8th and 9th most expensive countries in the world for rail travel in Fleet Logging’s survey. Slovenia and Austria had the most expensive fares in Europe.

The table below is based on the cheapest one-way ticket in early January that was available at the time of writing.