Rail pricing – a global comparison
There are some things in life you can be sure of – death, taxes and UK rail fares going up every year. By coincidence, I was just finishing up a quick bit of research on rail journey prices and cost over distance, when news of the latest price hike broke. In this article, the claim that the UK has the highest rail fares in Europe is investigated. It is something I’ve often thought about, and how it compares globally, but is this true?
The take from the ‘Reality Check’, is that the UK is the most expensive bought on the day but some of the cheapest if bought in advance. I would counter this later claim that this is little consolation to commuters whose season tickets don’t get the same price benefit of advance sale. Therefore, they still probably experience some of the highest season ticket prices. This is before we talk about efficiency and value for money (talked about delays previously)
Now, I’m not going to ramble on about train geography for a few reasons – partly as I’ve talked about this before enough times, but also because I’m recovering from a fractured arm! Also it doesn’t make for a great read when the figures and graphics tell their own story. So without further ado…
Around the world in 50 rail journeys
For this study, 50 major rail routes were selected from around the world, beginning with a particular focus on Western Europe in order provide regional comparisons to UK routes, with a few main routes between major cities selected. This later expanded to routes around the globe, to provide further context, though ideally, in the future perhaps, I’d like analyse a greater number of routes from other countries.
Price research was performed on rail websites around the world, based on peak times (9am or as close to) for fairness of comparison. Finally, QGIS was utilised to perform network analysis on Open Street Map rail data, to find and measure the shortest route. To achieve comparison, all prices were converted to US$, a commonly used global financial measure, and divided by the distance of route to find a measure of comparison of ‘Price per kilometre (US$)’.
There are some caveats to this analysis. While OSM does have its issues with consistency/reliability of accuracy (something which is ever improving), I decided to use this as it provided one consistent dataset to work with globally – one produced to a relatively similar resolution. I considered using rail GIS data from national data custodians, however issues of differences in reliability and resolution between national mapping agencies presented potential issues when comparing decisions. This before we consider access to all of these data resources. Beyond this, there is the caveat of the constantly fluctuating exchange rate to US$, as well as purchasing power (true availability) of the local population. For example, just because, Delhi to Mumbai is approximately $45 for this long journey – this doesn’t mean it is necessarily a ‘good’ and affordable price for the average Indian person.
The numbers are on track
The results are nonetheless very interesting, particularly when comparing routes/countries between regions, which you can do by exploring the Tableau dashboard above by clicking on the different measures. As one can see, Western Europe dominates the most expensive routes using this measure. Now, while one could argue the distances of routes are generally shorter compared to elsewhere in the world, conversely, this should be reflected in a lower price. But while the relative standard of rail travel in mainland Europe is generally considered high – by comfort and punctuality, other ‘developed’ countries with similar standard of rail travel (and maybe even higher, e.g. Japan), are still cheaper in this measure.
The factors behind these patterns are beyond this scope of this blog, and are likely to be cultural, economic and related to infrastructure project investment (possibly). What does particularly stand out is how the UK comes out on top in this study in the most expensive rail routes. Scroll to the rail infographic at the top of the page, it shows how 6 of the 7 come into the top ten in the study, including making up all of the top 4. Indeed, the UK is, on average, approximately US$0.15 ahead of the next expensive in this study, France.
While one could factor in the UK pound’s exchange rate to the US dollar – this doesn’t account for the size of the difference in price, and would still come out top. Furthermore, with Brexit causing the value of the pound to fall by the day, and UK rail prices set to increase in the coming months – things are unlikely to get cheaper. One can see when on ‘Price per km ($) vs Length of Route (m)’ plot, how much of an outlier and skew towards higher price per km the UK really is in this study. This is before we talk of accessibility and delays/distribution to travel (i.e. ‘Value for Money’).
Thus, UK is likely to remain on track to retain its (unofficial) crown of ‘Europe’s most expensive rail service’, for a while to come.