Until the late 1970s, Tube and British Rail fares were calculated at roughly the same rate per mile. After BR introduced cheap-day returns within Greater London, rail was often cheaper than the Tube, but with the introduction of zones, things started to swing the other way. Today, Tube fares are generally much cheaper than those charged by the now-privatised rail operators. The exception is for Tube journeys within zone one (roughly inside the Circle Line), which cost £2 for a single - though even that is relatively cheap for a seven-mile trip, which is just possible within that zone.
Take a 17-mile journey into central London as an example. A Tube single is £3.80 (22p per mile). With a Pre Pay Oyster card, the fare is £1.80 single at weekends (only 11p per mile). And a 17-mile Tube journey can be even cheaper if it covers only certain zones. A typical 17-mile trip by national rail, on the other hand, costs around £5, regardless of the origin or destination.
Some journeys by Tube take more than two hours. Chesham to Upminster is 44 miles, for which a single costs £5.60 (13p per mile). The journey from East Croydon to Luton by Thameslink train is the same length but costs £12.90 for a single (nearly 30p per mile). By comparison, the Tube really is a bargain. London's bus fares are also a bargain, with a £1 flat fare, or 70p if paid with Oyster card. Using this card, a 12-mile journey works out at just 6p per mile, whereas many a 12-mile bus journey outside London will cost five times as much at peak times.
All this raises some interesting questions. First, given that the majority of journeys into central London are made by public transport, especially since the introduction of the congestion charge, do bus and Tube fares need to be quite so cheap bearing in mind the vast subsidy it entails? Second, the Mayor is seeking control of all rail fares in the capital in order to bring them into line with the Tube. This would make things simpler for customers and might relieve overcrowding on certain Tube lines, but what additional subsidy would be required to make it possible?
Also, those living just outside Greater London would surely get a raw deal. If rail fares were lowered to match the Tube, there would have to be a geographical cut-off point, and that would almost certainly be the Greater London boundary. The maximum cost for a Tube return within Greater London at peak time is £7.60, whereas rail fares from Surbiton, for example, reach £11 and from Esher, the next station down the line, just in Surrey, £12. If fares from Surbiton were capped at £7.60 because it is in London, but fares from Esher remained at £12, many people may end up driving to their nearest Greater London station, causing congestion on the outskirts of the capital.
Other conurbations, such as West Yorkshire, have passenger transport executives that set all local rail fares, but their systems are much smaller than London's. Indeed, the true commuter rail network for London is the old BR Network South-East area stretching to the south coast and north to King's Lynn. It should have been retained as a single unit on privatisation and its re-creation today would be a major bonus.
Barry Doe is a public transport travel consultant and writes a column on fares and services in Rail magazine