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Left, a Class 175 Transport for Wales train. Right, the ight train ÖBB nightjet NJ40490 from Vienna to Düsseldorf. Picture by Dining Car (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Luke James

For the price of a same day single between Cardiff and Bangor, you could get into bed on a night train in Munich and wake-up in Budapest, Zagreb or Venice.

And in the same time it takes to travel by train between Cardiff and Aberystwyth, you could cover almost the length of France or the breadth of Germany.

Same day rail fares in the UK have recently received unfavourable comparisons with air travel and the picture doesn’t get any better when they are placed alongside the cost of train tickets on the continent.

A comparison for Nation.Cymru has found Welsh rail passengers face some of the highest same day prices in Europe while enduring among the slowest services – particularly for anyone trying to travel between north and south.

The findings come amid controversy over the UK Government’s decision to designate HS2 an England and Wales project, meaning Welsh railways will miss out on £4.6 billion in extra funding.

While bought in advance, a return between Cardiff and Bangor is £37, the cost almost trebles to £99.80 when bought on the day.

Compared with the cost of same day returns for equivalent journeys in 27 other European countries, only Denmark and Norway, which have among the highest wages in the world, are more expensive.

The cost of a single on the route was also the same price as a bed on the sleeper train between Munich and Milan, Venice or Verona (£91) and more expensive than a bed on the night trains to Budapest (£75) or Zagreb (£58).

Meanwhile, the £87 cost confronting a football fan paying on the day to travel from Wrexham to Cardiff and back to support the national team is matched only in Austria and is more than the cost of travelling on some of Europe’s fastest trains.

Journeys of at least 120 miles – 10 most expensive same day returns

Wales is also at the wrong end of the table when the cost of travel is compared with wages in each country.

The average hourly wage of a Welsh worker in 2018 (the latest comparable European data available) was £12.76, which means it would take eight hours to earn the current cost of a same day return between Cardiff and Bangor.

Only passengers in Poland, Portugal and Lithuania, which are three of the six lowest wage countries in the EU, would work longer to afford a similar journey.

‘Lower prices’

Since Wales’ railways were brought into public ownership last year, high fares can no longer be blamed on high profits. All fares go straight back into funding services, Transport for Wales pointed out.

Instead, experts said the difference was explained by higher public funding for railways on the continent.

“The subsidies in places like France and Italy are enormous,” Professor Stuart Cole, director of the Wales Transport Research Centre, told Nation.Cymru. “We’re talking about 50 per cent, in some cases 80 per cent of the fares paid by the state.

“They believe the railway should be available to everybody and so they charge lower prices.”

Peter Kingsbury, chair of the Railfuture Wales campaign group, said: “Pre Covid, I would say that more investment in and subsidy towards the daily operating costs of rail was required from government.”

But he added the group was “very aware that the public purse has had to put significant sums of money into the rail system over the past two years to keep it operating when passenger demand fell to around one-fifth of its ‘normal’ level for a number of months” and was now “cautious” about calling for further public spending.

Journeys of at least 120 miles – 10 most expensive same day returns compared to median wages

But the cost isn’t the only problem facing anyone seeking to get around Wales by train.

Infrastructure problems transform journeys between relatively nearby places into all-day odysseys or means they would simply never be attempted by train. The situation has become a joke. Literally.

In his Halilew stand-up show for S4C, comedian Elis James said: “On tour two years ago, I was in Pwllheli on the Friday and Bangor on a Saturday. Now, Pwllheli to Bangor is 30 miles. They’re in the same county. On the train – six and a half hours. Six and a half hours, 30 miles. I could forward roll it. That’d be faster than the train.”

While there are just 75 miles between Cardiff and Aberystwyth, getting to the west coast by train involves first heading east into England and the 4.30-hour journey equals the time it takes to travel the 297 between Berlin and Cologne and is an hour longer than it takes to travel the 410 miles between Paris and Marseille on the south coast of France.

Anyone attempting to travel from Carmarthen to Porthmadog, which are separated by 74 miles as the crow flies, would need a good book for the 5.45-hour ride – equal to the journey time on high-speed trains between Barcelona and Seville (516 miles) or Brussels and Marseille (524 miles).

Journeys of at least 70 miles – longest duration

This hasn’t always been the case. “Wales once had a very comprehensive train network,” said Professor Cole. “There are the remnants of a railway there.

“As a Welsh speaking, green, and red-blooded Welshman, I would say let’s open them. You could travel in Wales, from north to south instead of having to go into England. As an economist, it’s difficult to justify. Lovely to have but the rate of return is low.”

Wales’ rail infrastructure problems started with infamous UK-wide Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which included the closure of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line, and have more recently been exacerbated by a lack of electrification, according to Cole.

“The Welsh Government are to some extent hindered by the fact they don’t control the track, other than Valley Lines,” he added.

“Scotland can get money in block grant for track improvements. So any track money spent in England, Scotland gets its Barnett consequential. Wales doesn’t get that for track.

“So, they have a lot more electrification in Scotland than in Wales. In fact, until recently, it was only ourselves, Albania and Romania that were the only countries in Europe to have no electric trains. Which says a lot.”

Transport for Wales’ new Stadler FLIRT. Picture by Transport for Wales.

‘Best value’

First Minister Mark Drakeford recently described the UK Government’s decision to classify HS2 as an England and Wales project, therefor denying Wales a £4.6bn consequential, as “absolutely nonsensical.” Although UK Government Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove insists Wales will “benefit significantly” from the scheme.

Carolyn Thomas MS, the chair of the Senedd’s all-party group on transport who regularly travels from Wrexham to Cardiff by train, said she usually paid an average of £55 for a return by booking in advance and encouraged others to do the same.

Commenting on our findings on journey times, she added: “Our Victorian railway infrastructure desperately needs UK Government investment, it is totally unacceptable that Wales will lose £5billion because of the UK Government’s unjustifiable decision not to provide Wales with the rail infrastructure funding it needs and is entitled to.

“Wales needs to have its fair share of funding and not be held back by UK Government. We need to have integrated services and tickets with reasonable fares to encourage others to shift to using public transport, and it is a lifeline for many who do not possess a car and it needs to be affordable.”

Responding to our findings, a spokesperson for Transport for Wales said: “We have invested more than £800m in new trains for the Wales and Borders network, which will begin to enter service this year, and are currently undertaking a multi-million-pound programme of station improvements.

“Three quarters of a billion pounds is being invested in the South Wales Metro and we are committed to delivering Metro schemes in North and West Wales.

“We’re dedicated to helping our customers find the best value fare for their journey and have introduced a number of initiatives such as free travel for under 11s, free off-peak travel for under 16s with a fare-paying adult, Multiflex tickets for regular travellers and we currently have a half-price sale on advance tickets.”

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