In the days since the privatisation of British Rail, a vast array of documents have been created to regulate the railways in Great Britain. I'm going to try and explain some of them as best I can, so you can get some idea of how it all works.
One of the oldest documents, which existed even under British Rail, is the Fares Manual, which is, at its most basic, a book telling you the fare between any two given stations.
Now, this was fine when there was one British Rail to determine the fare. But with twenty or so franchised companies all operating passenger trains, how is a given fare determined?
Well, put simply, someone from the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) has gone through and picked, on some basis, which train operating company sets the fares between any given pair of stations. Unfortunately, that basis seems to be haphazard at best, as some of the examples below will demonstrate.
In principle, the fares between a given pair of stations are decided by the company running most of the trains on the route. So, for example, the fares between London and Oxford are decided by First Great Western. Unfortunately, as we see below, this raises a number of questions.
Next time you buy a ticket, try and guess who sets the fare on your route; you'll almost certainly get it wrong. If you want to check, you can order the Fares Manual on CD for about £9 (plus VAT and P&P) from here.
The first question is, what if there are two different routes with trains run by different companies?
Example 1: London to Exeter. You can use High Speed Trains on First Great Western, or you can use slower trains run by South West Trains. The FGW services all go via Taunton, and the SWT services all go via Honiton. Since the FGW services are faster, you ought to be charged more than you are for the slower SWT services.
The solution is that there are two different fares, endorsed "Route Taunton" and "Route Honiton". When your ticket is stamped "Route X", this means your journey must pass through X. Thus First Great Western set the "Route Taunton" fare, since all their trains pass through Taunton, and South West Trains set the "Route Honiton" fare, since all their trains pass through Honiton.
Indeed, the same problem existed under BR, and it had the same solution; all that's changed is that the two different companies set the two different fares.
Another question: What if there are no direct trains between a pair of stations? Put another way, if you have to use at least two different companies to get from A to B, which one of them gets to set the fare? The basic idea ought to be that the company who runs the "most important" service between A and B gets to set the fare. Sometimes a journey consists of a mainline section, and a short branch line section at either end. In other cases, the decision is less clear-cut.
Example 2: East Croydon to Blackpool North. The obvious route will involve getting from Croydon to London, then from London to Preston on Virgin Trains, and then from Preston to Blackpool. Here, it's pretty obvious that the lion's share of the journey is on Virgin Trains, and so they deserve to set the fare, which they do.
Example 3: London to Aberystwyth. The obvious route is to go on Virgin Trains from London to Wolverhampton, and then on Arriva Trains Wales from Wolverhampton to Aberystwyth. The split is at about the half-way point in distance, but London-Wolves takes just 1 hour 48 minutes, compared to 2 hours 43 minutes for Wolves-Aberystwyth. Since the Virgin Trains service is a "mainline" service, and the ATW service is a "branch line" service, the Powers That Be have decreed that Virgin Trains should set the London-Aberystwyth fare.
All the examples we've considered so far have involved a train on a mainline out of London. But who gets to set the fare when going from one end of the country to another? In many cases (though by no means all!) the answer is CrossCountry.
Example 4: Leamington Spa to Portsmouth Harbour. There used to be direct trains on this route operated by CrossCountry, but they died many years ago (I'm sure I'll write more about that some other time). Here we encounter another problem; while the "natural" route may be to go via Reading and avoid London, it might be quicker to go via London. But since that's clogging up the mainlines into London, you ought to be charged more for going via London than not going via London.
And indeed, there are "Not London" and "London" fares; the "Not London" fare is set by CrossCountry, as one might expect given that you have to use their services to get between Leamington and Reading. The "London" fare, however, is set not by Chiltern Railways, but by Virgin Trains; I can only assume they're allowing for the possibility of going via Coventry, since there is also a "High Wycombe" fare, which allows travel via London but not via Coventry, which is set by Chiltern Railways.
Example 5: Banbury to Portsmouth Harbour. If we move one station south from Leamington to Banbury, one might expect the situation to be much the same for Banbury-Portsmouth. Indeed, we have "Not London" and "Any Permitted" fares. The latter, which allows travel via London, is set by Chiltern Railways. However, the "Not London" ticket is set not by CrossCountry, but by First Great Western.
Quite why this is the case I have no idea, but the same is true for Banbury to most of the stations on the south coast. In particular, the "Not London" fares from Banbury to Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton Airport Parkway, Southampton Central, Brockenhurst and Bournemouth are all set by First Great Western, in spite of the fact that CrossCountry run direct trains on the route!
Moreover, First Great Western serve Banbury only with local services from Oxford, and they don't serve Winchester, Southampton Airport, Brockenhurst or Bournemouth at all; what's more, the only FGW service at Southampton is the hourly Portsmouth-Cardiff service, which isn't exactly much use if you're trying to get to Banbury!
When you look at some more examples of fares, it becomes clear that the company that sets a given fare seems to have been decided by rolling a twenty-sided die. (Warning: some of the examples below assume a reasonable knowledge of British geography.)
Example 6: Penzance to South Wales. Now, the Penzance-Bristol fare is set by First Great Western; some of the direct trains on this route are run by CrossCountry, but FGW probably deserve to set the Penzance-Bristol fare.
However, Penzance-Cardiff is set by Arriva Trains Wales. The only way you could use ATW on such a route is to go Penzance-Cheltenham-Cardiff (which I'm not sure is legal!), and use ATW on Cheltenham-Cardiff. Penzance-Swansea is set by ATW, which makes slightly more sense since they do operate most of the Cardiff-Swansea services. Penzance-Llanelli is also set by ATW, since all services west of Swansea are run by ATW.
So you'd expect Penzance-Carmarthen to also be set by ATW, yes? No. Penzance-Carmarthen (and indeed, Penzance to anywhere west of Carmarthen) is set by First Great Western. This is in spite of the fact that Carmarthen is served by First Great Western about once a day. (I think this may be a mistake, since Plymouth to Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli, Carmarthen and all points west of Carmarthen are all set by ATW.)
Example 7: Aberystwyth to Birmingham/Coventry/Leamington. As you'd expect, Aberystwyth to Birmingham is set by Arriva Trains Wales, since they run direct trains on the route. ATW also set the Aberystwyth to Coventry fare. However, the Aberystwyth to Leamington fare is set by... wait for it... CrossCountry. The only possible way in which you can use CrossCountry on such a route is to get between Birmingham and Leamington; the rest of the journey must use ATW.
Example 8: Aberystwyth to the North West and Scotland. Journeys from Aberystwyth to any station served by ATW are priced by ATW; so the fares on Aberystwyth to Crewe, Manchester, and Warrington are all set by ATW.
Aberystwyth to Preston, Lancaster, Carlisle, Glasgow are all set by Virgin Trains, since the "mainline" portion is taken to be the section from Crewe to Glasgow rather than from Aberystwyth to Crewe, which is fair enough, I suppose.
Aberystwyth to Edinburgh you might also expect to be set by Virgin Trains. Indeed, the only fare is "Route Crewe", and to get from Crewe to Edinburgh you (pretty much) can't avoid using Virgin Trains. But no, that's exactly what they were expecting you to think! No, Aberystwyth to Edinburgh is set by CrossCountry.
This is in spite of the fact that CrossCountry do not serve Crewe (except for one train from Manchester to Birmingham at about 0500), because all the Birmingham-Preston-Scotland services were transferred to Virgin Trains in 2007.
So, there you have it: proof positive that the Fares Manual makes (almost) no sense.