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Published 03 July 2024
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Railcard Rage: Are Solo Train Travellers Paying a Financial Penalty?

There are nine different Railcards available, offering discounts to children, families, over 60s and students. But many people who travel alone aren’t eligible for these substantial discounts and must buy expensive full-price tickets.

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According to National Rail, over 20 million people in the UK have access to a Railcard, giving them around one-third off train travel. With most costing £30 for one year (or £20 for a Disabled Persons Railcard), it’s typical to cover the cost of the Railcard with the savings you can make in just one or two trips. 

However, even though there are nine different national Railcards available, offering discounts to groups including children, families, over 60s and students, many people who travel alone – including part-time workers, single people and solo parents – are being shortchanged under the current system, and have to buy expensive full-price tickets. 

A patchwork of railcard discounts

With so many different types of Railcards available, you would think that there would be an option for everyone. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. 

If you’re over 60, or travelling with children under 16, then you can enjoy generous discounts – and these quickly add up when you’re making long, expensive trips. But if you’re in your 40s and 50s it gets harder to access these savings, unless you’re disabled, in full-time education, or regularly travel with the same partner or friend. 

Sometimes it’s possible to access Regional Railcards that provide discounted travel within the local area, and some operators, including ScotRail and Greater Anglia, offer a Club 50 Railcard, which entitles people aged 50-plus to cut-price fares. But these schemes aren’t available nationally, which can make travelling across the network – or making intercity journeys – prohibitively expensive. 

Railcards also don’t offer discounts on all journeys. For example, most can’t be used at peak times, and some stipulate a minimum fare. Consequently, they aren’t likely to help people who travel regularly for work, unless they work shifts or have flexible hours. 

James Banyard, a Green Party Councillor on Exeter City Council, has a Devon & Cornwall Railcard, which gives one third off journeys within Devon and Cornwall for residents over the age of 16. He told NerdWallet: “It has its limitations, but it’s useful for short hops around the local area. When I need to travel further afield I look at splitting tickets or buying advance fares, but unfortunately there’s no other way of getting a discount, so it becomes very expensive.”

» MORE: How to get cheap train tickets

The single tax

According to the Office for National Statistics, 8.4 million people were living alone in the UK in 2023, which equates to 30% of all households, and 13% of all people living in households. This is an increase of around 34,000 when compared to the previous year, which means many more people have to manage their budget in a cost of living crisis on a single income. Research from Hargreaves Lansdown indicates that, as a result, they’re paying a ‘singles tax’ of £860 per month, which represents a higher cost of living for those who aren’t part of a couple. 

Sarah Coles, Head of Personal Finance at Hargreaves Lansdown, told NerdWallet in an email: “When you’re living alone, the single penalty is lurking everywhere, from the supermarket to the station. Railcards are set up to reward people who travel together regularly, which will rule out many people who live on their own. It’s yet another way the system seems stacked against single people.”

Coles said: “You don’t even need to leave the house to pay more than your fair share, because utility bills, council tax and broadband all hit single people harder, as they shoulder the bills alone.”

This reflects the experience of Nina Francis-Young from Leicestershire, who isn’t able to save on travel with a Railcard. “It seems incredibly unfair,” she told NerdWallet. “Saving 30% on those expensive fares is a big deal, especially as a single parent. I’m 39 so I don’t meet the age criteria and as a solo mum, I can’t get the couples card. I have a family card, but half the time my kids are with their dad and I’m often travelling without them so I can’t use it. It feels like I’m paying a financial penalty when I travel by train.”

The rising cost of train travel

In March 2024, the UK government announced a 4.9% increase in rail fares for England, which follows a 5.9% increase in 2023. Passengers in Scotland faced an even bigger price hike, with an 8.7% increase in April 2024. 

Fares can be so high that a Railcard discount often represents a substantial saving – provided you’re eligible. Clare Jackson from Lancashire told NerdWallet, “Our daughter moved to university in London last September, and it costs over £100 to visit her, even when I travel off-peak at silly times. I tend to travel on my own, so without a Railcard the price of travel is a barrier and I can’t afford to go down as often as I’d like.”

So why aren’t Railcards more widely available? 

A spokesman for Railcard told NerdWallet in an email: “Railcards are designed to encourage travel by train to groups of people who do not travel regularly for leisure and support those for whom travel can be challenging. Train companies are always reviewing the tickets they sell to make leisure travel easier, and better value for money for their customers.”

A Railcard for everyone?

The obvious way to make the Railcard system fairer would be to introduce a National Railcard, which is available to everyone, regardless of age, for a set price. A similar system is already used in Germany, where the BahnCard gives up to a 50% discount on train travel. There are a range of options available, covering first class, second class and long-distance travel, and many of the people we spoke to, including Nina Francis-Young and Clare Jackson, say they would be among the first in line to buy one. 

James Banyard told NerdWallet: “You could solve the whole problem by having a National Railcard that would be available to all ages. I’d support this from a sustainability and environmental point of view as it would encourage more people to use the train in the way that the £2 bus fares hopefully encourage people to use the bus.”

Image source: Getty Images

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