Rail passengers are routinely being denied the cheapest fares when they buy tickets at stations, The Telegraph can disclose.
Self-service machines — which are used to purchase almost a quarter of all tickets sold annually — offer wildly different fares, an investigation by this newspaper shows.
Customers buying from a machine can pay more than £200 when a ticket for the same destination can be found elsewhere at the station for more than £100 cheaper.
For example, at machines run by train company Northern Rail in Leeds, passengers buying a First-Class Anytime Return to Birmingham were charged £271.
Only feet away, an East Coast trains machine offered the same journey using a First-Class Off-peak Return for £145.70. This type of ticket is not available for customers using Northern Rail’s machines, which means that some passengers might not be aware that they could save £125.30 by travelling off-peak.
The investigation also found that many machines promote expensive fares, bury cheaper options and do not apply discounts for groups or families.
There were calls on Thursday night for an inquiry into the country’s complex system of rail tickets, which has already been heavily criticised by MPs.
Louise Ellman, chairman of the transport select committee, called for the “unfair” system to be overhauled.
“The industry needs to put things right and if it does not, the Government must get involved. Passengers are being treated unfairly and being forced to spend more than they should,” she said.
Since 2004, the proportion of passenger revenue collected by machines has grown from just seven to 21 percent. Rail travel is at record levels with 1.59 billion journeys recorded in 2013-2014.
In 2011, Theresa Villiers, as transport minister, condemned rail companies over how difficult ticket machines were to use and challenged the industry to clean up its act.
But The Telegraph investigation examined rail fares across the country and found that customers were being offered different prices for the same journey depending on which operator’s machine they used.
At King’s Cross, East Coast machines offered a ticket from London Euston to Liverpool on a First-Class Anytime Single fare for £229.50. However, a Thameslink & Great Northern machine just feet away offered a London Midland-only First-Class Anytime Single for £94 – a saving of £135.50.
The London Midland option would involve a change at Stafford and the journey would last around three and a quarter hours, more than an hour longer than the more expensive option. But passengers were not given the choice.
In some cases customers are not offered cheaper prices for identical routes.
At Chiltern Railway’s Birmingham Moor Street station, a ticket from the city to London by any permitted route cost £49.50 for an Off Peak Single, while a Virgin machine at the city’s New Street station, just five minutes’ walk away, offered a Super Off Peak Single for £31, also by any permissible route — a saving of £18.50.
The investigation found that passengers using machines were missing out on the chance to “split” their fares into cheaper legs and to “stop short” on journeys. Splitting the journey from Carlisle to Manchester into three tickets can save passengers up to £50.
This little-known trick is impossible at most station ticket machines because most only sell fares from the station where they are situated. Passengers can, however, purchase “split” tickets at a ticket office.
Ticket machines also deny people savings by failing to suggest options to “stop short” — sometimes it is cheaper to buy a ticket for a point beyond the desired destination and get off early.
Machines do not always offer the same savings to groups that are available at ticket offices. Four adults travelling from London Victoria to Dover on an Off-Peak Day Return can do so for £88. However, this option is not available on Southeastern machines at Victoria, and the cheapest Standard Off-Peak Day Return for four costs £133.20 — a £45.20 premium.
Elsewhere, rail operators were found to be promoting more expensive tickets on their own machines’ “quick select” screens when fares almost half the price were available, albeit less visible.
For example, London Midland’s machines at Euston station automatically display more expensive fares, forcing passengers to sift manually through alternatives to secure the best travel deal.
A Standard Anytime Return from London to Birmingham was quoted at £164 on a London Midland machine. But a passenger searching through the options to Birmingham would find a Standard Anytime Return travelling with London Midland-only listed on the same machine. The latter ticket was priced at £69 — a saving of £95 if the passenger was given the choice of the slower London Midland train.
Mike Hewitson, head of policy at the rail watchdog Passenger Focus, said travellers wanted information to be given to them in a clear and simple way.
“Our research shows us that ticket machines still aren’t particularly user-friendly,” he said.
“Passengers should be able to use ticket machines and be confident in what they are offered, without needing to be ‘experts’ in the system.”
The campaign group Railfuture said that passengers were being forced to “jump through hoops” to get a reasonable fare. Bruce Williamson, a spokesman for the organisation, said it was “clearly wrong” that the cheapest fares were sometimes “buried” behind a number of option menus while the more expensive ones were promoted on the main default screens.
“Cheaper options have to be readily obvious and easy to find, not hidden from customers,” he said. East Coast said it was not aware that the London Midland-routed fares were missing from its machines at King’s Cross and said this had now been changed.
Northern Rail said it was working with its suppliers to ensure all necessary data were fed into its ticket machines to offer the best value fares to customers. It said this sometimes involved entering new data manually.
A spokesman said that the company would strive to “correct any inconsistencies”.
Southeastern said it was “difficult” for customers to buy group fares from ticket machines.
It said it was not able to include every fare on machines because too many were available.
A spokesman added: “If that ticket is unavailable or the customer has been sold an incorrect, more highly priced ticket, we will happily refund the difference.”
Chiltern Railways explained there had been “a minor technical error” that resulted in a fare not appearing on its machine.
London Midland said the majority of its machines were in place to sell the most commonly purchased tickets to passengers travelling on the day – so they tried to keep the screens “simple and easy to use”.
“Tickets for more complex journeys are always better bought online or at a booking office,” a spokesman said.