Which is the first off-peak train to London?

This sounds a simple question. It turns out that the answer is much more complicated.

If you have an Off-Peak Day Return from Sevenoaks to London Terminals then it’s the 0919 from Sevenoaks to Charing Cross.

But if you have an Off-Peak to somewhere else then it may not be valid on the 0919 – or the 0929 either!

An SRTA investigation has established that there are (at least) four different rules that apply, and they depend on the destination on your ticket. The rules are difficult to find on the National Rail Enquiry and Southeastern websites (although the rules are used by those websites in determining whether to offer you an Off-Peak fare once you have given a specific origin, a specific destination and a specific time.)

For Off-Peak Day Returns from Sevenoaks to London Terminals tickets are subject to Restriction Code BC. This specifies that for outward journeys (to London) the ticket is not valid on trains timed to depart Sevenoaks before 0915. So the ticket can be used on the 0919, but not on the 0913.

In fact there’s a special rule here for Sevenoaks: “BC” off-peak day tickets are valid from 0906 from other places, including Tonbridge!.

But for Off-Peak Day Returns to other places the rules are different.

For example, an Off-Peak Day Return from Sevenoaks to Reading is subject to Restriction Code B1. This specifies that for outward journeys the ticket is not valid on trains timed to depart before 0930. So it’s not valid on the 0919, 0922 or the 0929.

Yet for a similar day journey through London, to Cambridge, a different rule applies. An Off-Peak Day Return from Sevenoaks to Cambridge is subject to Restriction Code C4. This specifies that for outward journeys the ticket is not valid on trains timed to arrive at London Terminals before 1000. London Bridge counts as a London Terminal (even though it’s not a Terminal for Southeastern services – that’s another story). So it’s not valid on the 0919 or 0929 to Charing Cross, which are timed to arrive at London Bridge at 0941 or 0953 respectively. But the off-peak day return ticket is valid on the 0922 to Blackfriars (timed to arrive at Blackfriars at 1029).

But there’s a further catch. If you’re staying overnight in Cambridge and coming back the next day, then you would need an “Off-Peak Return” rather than an “Off-Peak Day Return”: the return portion of an Off-Peak Return is valid for a month. Yet for Cambridge the rules for a Off-Peak Return are different. Restriction Code 4A applies. This specifies that the ticket is
not valid on trains timed to depart before 0930 – so you could not use the 0922 to Blackfriars, even though you could do so on a Day Return.

Moreover long-distance Off-Peak return tickets have rules geared to the time of the onward train from London. So, for instance, a Sevenoaks to Truro (Super) Off Peak Return has Restriction Code YX. That specifies that it is not valid on trains timed to depart London Paddington before 1003 (and after 1510 and before 1901). So using this ticket for the 1003 from Paddington National Rail Enquiries validly suggests the 0831 from Sevenoaks. Indeed the ticket could be used on any morning peak-time train.

There’s an additional gotcha to consider. The rules apply to the timetable times of the trains, not the actual times. So if you are waiting on the platform at Sevenoaks for the 0943 to London and a late-running 0929 comes through at 0940 then your ticket to Reading or Cambridge won’t be valid on it.

We don’t consider that information about the validity of tickets is communicated well by the rail industry. The complexity of the system is probably as baffling to front-line staff as to customers.

Moreover if the purpose of off-peak fares is to encourage travel out of the peaks, it’s counter-intuitive that a train, that is valid for an off-peak day return to London, is not valid for an off-peak day return to somewhere else via London, even though the onward journey would be even further from the morning peak period.


Which is the first off-peak train to London? — 20 Comments

  1. Out of interest…..what makes Sevenoaks so special in this? The same confusion and lack of ticket transparency applies EVERYWHERE.

  2. @Martin Yes, it’s a widespread problem. But here are some hard, counter-intuitive and researched examples from Sevenoaks. And we have to start somewhere, so sorting out “Network Southeast Cheap Day Returns” could be a good place to start.

  3. I started to complain about a related issue a few months back. My concern was that I couldn’t get consistent information about a London bound off-peak ticket from different SE sources:
    – at the ticket machine: no option for off-peak day return when the next train to depart was the 9.19
    – on the train, unsure
    – at the station: 9.19, but denied all responsibility for the ticket machines
    – at the call centre: train arriving in London after 10. Eventually, they conceded that the 9.19 was the earliest. However, the proposed approach for buying a ticket at the right price from a ticket machine was to pay the peak-rate and claim the discount back.

    I gave up fighting SouthEastern’s complaints procedure.

    I’ve since found, when renewing a ‘scholar’s pass’ inconsistent information from different staff at the ticket office.

  4. @Tim Thanks for this.

    The ticket machines are programmed not to offer Off Peak Returns to London on the front page until after the time of the last non-offpeak train (now 0913). However when offpeak day returns to London became valid on the 0919 last year it took some time for Southeastern to reprogram them, and during this period the machines would not sell these tickets until after 0919. (Off peak day returns are apparently available before 0913 if you select “buy a ticket for another day” and follow the more complex set of screens there.)

    The station staff are often not helpful about the ticket machines: perhaps they see them as a threat to their jobs, as has happened at TfL and threatened on Thameslink north of London?

    The call centre was completely wrong – and the 0919 reaches London well before 1000. Do you have details of that call please, and did you complain?

  5. I didn’t know that the 0919 had become off peak for a London terminals day return ticket. Does that mean that I can take my bike on that train as well, I wonder? I’ve been letting that one go and getting the 0929.

  6. @Kirsty

    If you have a off-peak day return from Sevenoaks to London you can travel on the 0919 or the 0929. But your non-folding bike can’t. The rule for the cycles is “if your train terminates in London between 7am and 10am, you aren’t allowed to take your non-folding bike.” (https://www.southeasternrailway.co.uk/travel-information/on-board/cycles).

    However up to and including the 0631 from Sevenoaks (arrives London Bridge 0655) it is off-peak for non-folding bikes but peak for you!

    The 0919 from Sevenoaks became valid for off-peak day returns from Sevenoaks to London in May 2018. Previously the first train for which these tickets were valid was the 0929. (Note that there was *not* a general waiver on the 0930 rules for the 0929 from Sevenoaks for off-peak day returns to other destinations via London.)

  7. I haven’t played with them this year but in December the ticket machines wouldn’t sell an off-peak ticket before the 9.19 and so it was necessary to go to “buy tickets for later travel” and choose a time after 9.30 (and not any time between 9.19 and 9.30- I tried) to get one. I thought that was pretty annoying and quite unfair on the less savvy traveller who might end up paying considerably over the odds. It’s also particularly bad since the 9.19 isn’t widely advertised as the first off peak and it much earlier than many easements are. You might guess there would be one for the 9.29 but not the 9.19. I suppose we should be grateful that at least those in the know can do this since before that update there would often be a massive queue to buy one at the ticket office!

    For what it’s worth, I also don’t quite understand why the off peak doesn’t coincide with the start of the network railcard validity (albeit this was more stark on the old timetable when there were only, I think, two off peak trains before 10am). I also sometimes wonder how the 10am restriction applies to delays since the 9.59 is often a minute late…

  8. Woebetide anyone who also tries to buy an off-peak ticket with a railcard where different cards have different start times and minimum fares!

    Also off-peak tickets from Sevenoaks to Perth in Scotland seem to be valid on any morning train from Sevenoaks but only if you go via King’s Cross and not via Euston!

  9. @Jacob We understood that the ticket machines had been reprogrammed to sell offpeak tickets for the 0919 – but only once the 0913 has left. If the “buy tickets for later travel” doesn’t offer an offpeak ticket if you put in 0919 then that’s a programming error, and a breach of the undertaking ORR expect TOCs to make (to offer the cheapest ticket).

    The network railcard start at 1000 is more restrictive than other railcards – the Senior Railcard can be used if there’s an offpeak ticket available (although the conditions [1] misleadingly say “The time when off-peak services start can vary by station” whereas, as is clear from our article, there’s no single time and whether a train is offpeak depends on the journey you are making).

    [1] https://www.senior-railcard.co.uk/help/railcard-terms-conditions/

  10. @Jonathan Yes, railcards just add more complexity!

    Are you sure about the Perth example? National Rail Enquires seems to show that you can use a Super Off Peak return from Sevenoaks to Perth on the 0812 (or earlier) from Sevenoaks and then the 0930 from Euston to Glasgow. Restriction Code 9F applies: ticket not valid on trains timed to depart Kings Cross before 0906 or Euston before 0905.

  11. Yes. Restriction code 1V applies to early trains so an off-peak ticket is valid on the 0649 and 0747 from Sevenoaks but not the 0717 as that requires departure from London between 0644 and 0749. Super off-peak tickets become valid on the 0812 with restriction code 9F.


  12. @Jonathan Thanks. It seems that one could use any peak period train from Sevenoaks – the Restriction Code only limits the onward departure from London. So one could leave Sevenoaks earlier than the NRE suggested train and have a coffee en route in London …

  13. @Secretary

    I will have to have another play with the machines at an appropriate time!

    It does strike me that if the programming logic only permits a ticket to be bought after the 9.13 has left, that means off-peak tickets are sold from 9.14 onwards. This doesn’t give a massive window to buy one before getting on the 9.19. I suppose it is better than it was pre-May 2018 when, if I remember correctly, there was a big gap between the last peak train leaving (c.9.16, perhaps?) and tickets being available for the first off-peak train.

    In an ideal world, I would have thought the machines should advertise off-peak trains from about 9.09 with a pop-up warning seeking confirmation on selection. Doesn’t something like this happen in North London where there are various TOC-restricted tickets available.

  14. @Jacob


    Logically a better guard against using an offpeak ticket early would be to enforce it through the barriers than through the ticket machines. The ticket machine could sell the ticket in advance, but the barriers could give “Seek Assistance” until 0914 – leaving 5 minutes to get from the barriers to the platform.

  15. Railcards certainly add complexity.
    Senior railcards valid on all trains to London from 9.19
    Two Together card and Annual gold card valid from 9.30 so first train is 9.35 slow then 9.43 fast
    16-25 and 26-30 card holders get a discount in the peak so £15.80 return, between 9.19 and 9.59 trains cheapest ticket is £12 travelcard after 10.00 £8.65 return.
    Network card holders get 10p off after 10am Monday -Friday!

  16. @Secretary

    As promised, I played around with the machine yesterday morning when I arrived at the station aiming for the 0919. The off-peak tickets are advertised on the main screen from 0914. I’m not sure if that means I got it wrong in my post from 17th January or whether the software has been updated since then. I think there is a good chance it is the former since, having left my house at the “normal” time for the 0919, I arrived at the ticket machine at about 0912!

    What did, however, surprise me was that when I attempted to buy a ticket to my chosen destination–Milton Keynes Central–only the peak ticket was available. The ticket office happily sold me one and told me I could use it on the 0919. The restriction code is E9 which National Rail Enquiries tells me means it is not valid for trains leaving London Terminals before 0953. I’m not quite why it is therefore not available on the machines from 0914 since I can’t see how you’d end up violating that restriction.

    (For what it’s worth, I also don’t quite understand why that one has a restriction code of E9 when it appears the first off-peak tickets available from Euston to Milton Keynes are a 0920 Virgin West Coast Only and a 0940 Any Permitted…!)

  17. @Jacob

    Before the 0919 there is a 0913 train to London. It may be that the ticket machines are programmed not to offer the off-peak return until that train is scheduled to have left – we had understood that this was the basis of the programming when the first train valid for off-peak return to London was the 0929.

    Calculating the off-peak availability time on the same basis for all destinations would probably be beyond the capabilities of the ticket machines. So it looks as though off-peak destinations other than London have a simpler rule – perhaps not to sell before 0930?

    That’s totally incorrect for “off-peak” tickets that, like the tickets to Milton Keynes Central (and Truro), restrict only the time of the onward departure from London. For an E9 restriction you could use the ticket on the 0601 from Sevenoaks,and have a leisurely breakfast in London before departing Euston after 0953. That’s a breach of the ORR expectation that ticket machines should offer the cheapest ticket.

  18. Otford offpeak times have suddenly been put back 30 mins to 9.56 which trebles my return cost to Swanley from 3.35 to 9
    15. This is draconian and unjustified
    Anyone know why?

  19. @Rob

    The time “offpeak” starts depends on the ticket, not on the train, as we discuss in https://srta.org.uk/wp/posts/3376 The availability of railcard discounts also depend on the time in non-obvious ways.

    It seems that the 0926 from Otford is still valid for a offpeak ticket Otford to London Terminals. This has validity code B3 “Not valid on trains timed to depart after 04:29 and before 09:00”. However an offpeak ticket Otford to Swanley has validity code B1 “Not valid on trains timed to depart after 04:29 and before 09:30”, and so is not valid on the 0926.

    The B1 restriction is pretty standard for local off-peak tickets; the B3 (and BC from Sevenoaks) tend to be for cases where the destination is not reached until 10:00 or later.

    Are you sure that this is a recent change please? (Update: We have checked the fare files back to 2015 and as far as we can see a B1 restriction with the same definition has applied to the Otford to Swanley Cheap Day Return throughout.)

    What railcard are you trying to use please? For the senior railcard the discount is only available for journeys wholly within the London & Southeast Railcard card if an offpeak ticket is valid for that journey.

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