05 October 2010

First's Club 55

It simply is not possible to travel by public transport from John o' Groats to Lands End for free. There was a well-publicised case soon after England joined Wales and Scotland in offering free concessionary local bus travel, though special dispensation was given to the intrepid English traveller as under normal circumstances his pass would not be valid outside England.

However, Barry Doe brought news last month of a special deal being offered by train operating companies run by First here in the UK, that allow you to almost do what we did last year for just £55. First's Club 55 offer permits travel on all First TOCs except Scotrail, but Arriva Trains Wales is included. Club 55 is available to anyone aged 55 or over and travellers do not need to be in possession of a Railcard of any description to qualify.

Essentially, First has divided the country into six huge zones. Travel within one zone is £15 return and an add-on of £10 return for each additional zone travelled in/through thereafter. Rather than John o' Groats as the most northerly start point, Edinburgh is the new location. Travel from here to Penzance can legitimately cost £55 return. The fare is calculated as £15 for the first zone (A) and then £10 each for the remaining 4 zones needed to pass through in order to reach Penzance (B, D, E, F).

The scheme runs into trouble in a number of ways. Firstly, the number of ticket clerks who know of its existence is incredibly low, judging by comments made. Passengers have many time restrictions with which to acquaint themselves. And travel is only possible by participating First TOCs and Arriva Trains Wales. As Barry points out, Doncaster-Edinburgh is possible BUT not with East Coast along the ECML, but with First TransPennine Express via Manchester and the WCML.

Barry suggests an Edinburgh-Penzance journey travelling via Manchester, Newport and Exeter, which takes around 14 hours. By contrast, during last year's LEYTR Top 'n' Tail, we traversed the country from Edinburgh to Penzance direct on the meandering National Express coach Service 336 (now a shadow of its former self) in a minuscule 17:30.

Have a look at these restrictions:
Normal Monday-Friday time restrictions are enforced, except arrival in London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or York, where this may not take place before 1010 or depart between 1600-1900. First Hull Trains further restricts arrival in London to not be permitted before 1100 or departure between 1605-1719. On Fridays only, Club 55 tickets are not valid from London Paddington at 1406 and 1506; 1432, 1532, 1632, 1731 from Reading and 1748 from Newbury.

Lots of useful trains to avoid then. But perhaps the best deal is the ability to travel for just £15 within one zone. Travelling further afield, despite the financial saving/incentive an extra tenner is, becomes just too complex for many to attempt. Those that do are likely to come a cropper with staff manning ticket barriers. We all know that the excess fare policies by TOCs are eye-wateringly, headline-grabbingly high.

This scheme both highlights the massive savings that can be had for train travel and the complexity of the fare structure. How long has it been since a return from Edinburgh to Penzance has been possible - even for the holder of a Railcard - for £55? Off-peak, the journey via London today costs around the £700 mark, for example. But the standard Monday-Friday restrictions in addition to the new ones imposed will serve only to cause confusion, frustration and bewilderment.

The scheme runs until 30 November, thereafter expect the following links to no longer work.

Club 55 Zonal Map
Club 55 Description

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