Every year I leave London for Christmas and go back to Leicester. Usually I get Christmas Eve off, as there’s no Christmas Day paper, and get out of the city a day ahead of many others.

No such luck this year as Christmas Eve is on the Saturday, so I’m going back with everyone else after work on the Friday night. Right, time to book the train tickets.

An edited screenshot showing return tickets all costing £59.50.

(This screenshot is heavily edited to condense the information, but you can see the tickets for yourself.)

Hmm. That’s a bit dear. What about singles… oh. “From £71.” Really?

Yes, really. Here’s a selection of single tickets for trains leaving St Pancras the night before Christmas Eve:

Update : I’ve tidied up the tables to make things clearer since I first published this post.

Single train tickets (selected) leaving St Pancras for Leicester, Friday December 23 2016
Depart Duration Cost
17:57 1:03 £79.50
18:25 1:15 £55.00
18:30 1:22 £71.00
19:15 1:08 £58.50
19:32 1:21 £42.50
19:55 1:06 £55.00
20:15 1:07 £55.00
20:26 1:03 £42.50
20:55 1:07 £42.50
21:00 1:26 £28.50
21:30 1:45 £58.50
22:00 1:44 £21.00
22:25 1:32 £17.50
23:15 2:35 £14.50

Looking at these prices, there’s an obvious tailing off as it gets later. But there’s a wild fluctuation even between adjacent services.

Why does it cost £30 more to travel at 21:30 instead of 21:00, on a service that calls at the same stops (not shown) but takes 19 minutes longer?

Why does it cost £79.50 to travel at 17:57? £79.50! That’s £6.40 more than the weekly dole for over-25s. 11 hours’ work at the minimum wage for over-25s. This is mad.

What’s the situation abroad? Let’s pick on the Netherlands, going from Amsterdam to Eindhoven as the journey times are similar (prices converted from euros).

Single train tickets leaving Amsterdam for Eindhoven, Friday December 23 2016
Depart Duration Cost
19:55 1:21 £16.00
20:10 1:18 £16.00
20:25 1:21 £16.00
20:40 1:18 £16.00
20:55 1:21 £16.00

It’s Friday night, the night before Christmas Eve, thousands are leaving the capital to spend Christmas with their families. You plan to leave any time from just before 20:00 to just after 21:00. How much do you pay for your ticket?

In England, about £50. The Netherlands, £16 — the same as you’d pay tomorrow, or the day after, the same as you’d pay in the morning peak.

Leaving aside the much higher price in England — a function of our railways being run by billionaire bigots — the huge variation in pricing says something important about the way our country’s railways are thought of.

Train journeys are not an essential service to be provided to all, but a scarce commodity to be sold for the most profit. There’s nothing inherently different about these services — they travel the same distance along the same tracks and serve similar stations along the way.

But there’s more demand at certain times, so the price goes up — to make the most amount of money out of people able to pay it or who absolutely must travel at those times.

In contrast, to use our Netherlands example, a journey costs a certain amount of money, determined approximately by the distance travelled. It’s a service, not a commodity. If the train’s full then the train’s full, get the next one in 15 minutes.

This nonsense can be pinned to the door of privatisation. Britain now has the highest rail fares in Europe — and rising much faster than real wages — yet subsidies to private operators are four times what were paid to British Rail before it was broken up. And there has been little investment, as private operators extract profits, so while passenger numbers are up since 1994, rail’s modal share (the proportion of people travelling by train) hasn’t budged. Action for Rail have a good report on the “four big myths” of privatisation.

But it looks like I’m having a late one on Friday December 23.