Train travel too expensive? Perhaps not compared to the car…

Published on 20 January 2009 in , , , , , , ,

Whilst I was up north over Christmas, I had one of those inevitable “cost of transport” discussions. These seem to happen quite often, and usually consist of someone asking me how much my annual Travelcard costs, and then them putting a shocked face on when I tell them.

This conversation was different in that it was on a different tack – depreciation in value of cars. The result was that the annual depreciation value of their car was roughly £1,000. So if they bought their car – not a new car incidentally – left it on the drive for twelve months, and then sold it, they’d be around £1,000 out of pocket. If they left it on for two years, they’d be £2,000 out of pocket. And so on.

Having never owned a car, I’d never really considered this a factor myself, but it was interesting in light of my own annual transport costs – which for London come out at around £1100.

Train crossing at Blackfriars

For the same as my annual Travelcard (that gets me train, DLR and tube travel in London zones 1-3, plus unlimited bus and tram travel throughout Greater London), I could let a hunk of metal sit on my drive.

Put that hunk of metal (and the odd bit of plastic) on the road and I’d need insurance and the car would need a tax disc. Then there’s the cost of petrol, maintenance and parking to add to that. The RAC do an annual Cost of Motoring Index, and their 2007 Index puts the annual costs at at least £3,500 for a small car (naturally including RAC membership at £133!)

It suddenly makes my own costs look rather puny, even taking into account my figures are for a slice of London only. My own transport bill does not cover excursions outside of London zones 1-3, although my annual Travelcard gives me a third off off-peak rail fares in the South East, and you’d be amazed how far I can travel that was for less than £10 return. More expensive are trips outside the South East – although I only do that a handful of times a year. It would take a serious amount of train and bus travel to get to £3,500 – even if I split that cost between myself and Catherine.

There are other factors that we need to remember of course. Whilst many will wail and moan about service levels, there is no competition – Greater London’s integrated transport network is the best in Britain, and the South East has the most extensive rail network in the country thanks to all those people commuting into central London. Chances are, if you live in London, you run a pretty good chance of not needing a car – and if you do, you probably need less cars per household in London than you would elsewhere.

Now it’s all part of a bigger picture called cost of living – the popular view of that it costs more to live in London. Indeed, wages are higher in London then they are elsewhere.

House prices are certainly higher. My two bedroom split level maisonette is worth more than my parents four bedroom house with garden, garage and conservatory. But then in London, if you don’t need a four bedroom house, you wouldn’t buy one because you probably can’t afford it.

Outside London if I could buy a bigger house, I probably would. My monthly mortgage wouldn’t change that much, however there would be increased heating, insurance and electric costs. Food prices aren’t particularly cheaper, and the price of a pint isn’t as varied as it used to be. And then there’s the car…

There’s no doubt that if you do a like for like comparison, London will always come out as being more expensive. If you absolutely need a car – maybe you use it for work reasons – London certainly won’t be cheaper. Nor too if you needed a four bedroom house to house all those sprogs.

But wherever you are in the country, it may well be that compared with the cost of owning a car, the cost of public transport is far far less than you think – even taking into account the higher costs outside London. Well assuming you’ve got a decent service in the first place anyway…

When it does come to the time that Catherine and myself leave London, I know it’s almost inevitable that we’ll need a car. One car. Cos if I can get away with it, the train, will certainly be taking the strain. And it will be cheaper too.


  • William T says:

    There’s also the stress factor – I’ve always tried to weigh up the disadvantages of late/cancelled trains/buses, and the passengers you have to share them with, versus the stress of having to drive and come into contact, albeit behind glass, with similarly unpleasant and/or unpredictable people who are driving dangerously large hunks of metal perilously close to you.
    That, and all the time you spending (waste?) taking your car to be serviced or repaired, checking the tyres and oil, washing it, cleaning the inside, scraping the ice off on cold mornings, driving around trying to find somewhere to park, the money for paying to park etc.
    Even with a train service of only one train an hour off peak where I am, personally I’ve managed OK, and have saved a vast sum of money (though admittedly I do work from home.) And when public transport breaks down you can just get a taxi – you’d have to take a lot of them to reach anywhere near the cost of car ownership. Everything you ever need can be delivered online.
    What do I like most? Being able to read, make my way through podcasts and audiobooks or just look out of the window. It feels far more productive and it makes a journey a break in my working day rather than something else to endure, which it would be if I had the responsibility of driving.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Being able to spend my commute doing something worthwhile like reading, is one of the reasons I never want to have to drive to work! It’s also why I rather dislike doing long journeys by car – even as a passenger. I just can’t read in a car – I get travel sick!

  • Joseph Rowe says:

    Nice to read your comments. I think car users forget that they have to buy the thing in the first place, then pay maintenance, tax, insurance, petrol, parking, etc.
    As a demonstration of how expensive cars are in general I calculated that I would spend about £6000 travelling to and from work by bus over a period of ten years. A car costing £6000 wouldn’t even last ten years!
    Of course, I don’t just go to work I also go shopping and out for day trips, always by public transport. I am pretty sure that even these non-work travel costs would fail to match the enormous expense of car ownership.
    As an aside, cars are bad for the environment and I also think are bad for society. Public transport is a much cleaner, friendlier, healthier and safer method of getting from A to B… and just to reiterate it is much cheaper too!!!
    (Imagining looking out of the train window at the stressful drivers on the nearby road… aahh!)

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Cars have their uses at times but I confess everytime I see gridlock near my house as I walk to the tube (which is most mornings) I have a smug glow about me!

  • Justin says:

    I don’t agree personally. Cars are easily lasting more than 10 years. I drive a diesel clio which i’ve had from new 7 years ago. Its costs me less than £100 to tax it for the year and insurance is a poultry £15 a month. I can quite easily get 50+ mpg out of it also. 500miles on a tank is not unreasonable on a long journey. Tyres last for ages (last set did just under 4 years) and are cheap to purchase. I would say my annual costs are far cheaper than what the RAC are quoting. Including fuel my annual costs are easily less than £1500 and that is taking into consideration a fair bit of mileage. Plus i get the option to travel wherever i fancy whenever i fancy. I don’t have to worry about strikes. I can actually take large objects home from shops etc. The list goes on…
    Now take my trainfare which costs me over 5k a year into London. I get to sit on a crowded train and don’t always get a seat. There are always noisy people around etc and the general experience isn’t very nice a lot of the time.
    Having a car is far better value for money i think than relying on public transport.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Although to be fair, your journey to London in a car wouldn’t be particularly good either!