Train companies are facing calls to refund passengers who pay over the odds for tickets in future, after research conducted by the rail regulator found that one in five customers are selecting the wrong option when using ticket machines. Yet there are steps you can take to ensure you pay less for your journey.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) recently employed mystery shoppers to buy rail tickets from machines, with the results revealing a lack of information on the most suitable and cost-effective tickets for them.

Its findings showed that while 7% of passengers underpay and could be fined, 13% are overpaying by selecting a ticket that is more expensive than required.

The ORR's research showed:

  • Nearly two-thirds of the mystery shoppers (65%) could not see any information on the machines about the type of tickets which could or couldn't be bought.
  • More than half (57%) said the machines didn't explain the times when peak and off-peak tickets were valid.
  • And nearly one-third (32%) said there was no information on the machines about ticket restrictions.

The rail regulator is now putting pressure on train companies to introduce a price guarantee, and provide refunds for customers who have unwittingly paid more than was necessary for their tickets. Check out our Cheap Train Tickets guide for help avoiding pricey fares.

I've overpaid for a ticket – how can I claim a refund?

The ORR is calling for train companies to refund "anyone who finds that they could have bought a cheaper ticket for the same journey" and has asked the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train companies, to respond to its findings by Friday 10 March.

It's not yet clear how the refund process could work (although it's likely to differ from company to company). We'll update this story when we know more.

What steps can I take to ensure I'm getting the best price?

Make sure you're not bamboozled into paying over the odds by planning ahead.

There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Book in advance. Most rail companies release their tickets three months in advance. So if you know you have to travel, make sure to purchase your tickets as soon as they're released, when they'll be on sale at a lower price.

  • Split your tickets. Splitting tickets essentially refers to using multiple tickets to make the same journey. Bizarrely, buying tickets for individual parts of your journey can dramatically lower the price. Of course, there are rules (for instance the train must stop at all the stations you buy tickets for). Use our Split Ticketing tool to find out more.

  • Buy a railcard. Railcards can cut a third off your bill. You can buy them on the railcard site and most are usually £30/year or £70 for three years (works out at £23.30/year). So spend more than £90 a year, even on just one trip, and it's cheaper.

Read our Cheap Train Tickets guide for full info on how to slash the cost of travelling by rail.

'Train companies are working to reform fares'

Commenting on the ORR's research, John Larkinson, the regulator's director of railway markets and economics, says: "Despite investment in new technology and the removal of jargon from ticket machines, our new research shows passengers may be paying more for their journey than necessary.

"Our mystery shoppers found ticket machines are missing important information on ticket choice, restrictions and validity.

"To quickly benefit passengers, the Rail Delivery Group must set out what improvements to ticket machines will be made in the short term, and we are calling on train companies to commit to refund anyone who finds that they could have bought a cheaper ticket for the same journey." 

In response, a spokesperson for the RDG says that train companies are working to reform fares through a number of agreed trials which will allow fares to be simplified. They add: "Complex, decades-old Government rail fare regulations make it more difficult for train companies to offer the right, simple options on ticket machines.

"Simplifying the number and types of fares in the system will let train companies provide customers with clear information and help them to make better informed choices. We want customers to get the best possible deal every time they travel by train, however they buy their tickets."