Fare dodgers may force National Express off the rails in Oz

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The Independent Online

Fare dodging on Australian trains is at such high levels that National Express, the British transport company, is considering pulling out of the country unless the local government fixes the problem.

National Express runs train and tram services around and in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria. In its recent interim results, Australian turnover for the half-year was £106.7m – nearly a tenth of the total group's sales - with an operating profit of £6.1m. In a trading statement the company said the "endemic" fare evasion would contribute to the division being only "marginally" profitable in 2002.

The company estimates that around 20 per cent of train travellers do not pay. In the UK, the rate is around 5 per cent. The problem is also affecting the French company Connex, which operates trains and light rail in Melbourne and Sydney.

A spokesperson said National Express was in talks with the government of Victoria to improve the ticketing systems and train infrastructure. The company made it clear that if the Victorian government had not committed to more investment by autumn next year then it would consider shutting up shop in Australia.

"We have got to be able to show shareholders there is some material progress," said a spokesperson for National Express. "Should we get stuck in the mud and feel we are not able to work with the government, we would have to take a view whether we would stay."

On rural lines leading into Melbourne the train stations are unmanned, and tickets are validated only by the passenger punching it in a ticket machine, an almost voluntary exercise. There are several potential methods of solving the problem, from improving the ticketing systems and barriers around the stations to putting conductors on the trains. National Express has also been hit by the introduction of a new tax on rail journeys, and a £12.5m reduction in state subsidies in 2002.

National Express runs Australian bus services that are profitable and it would want to keep them. An exit from trains and trams would bring into question the future of the bus division.

The company is the largest train operator in the UK and also operates city centre buses and long-distance coach services.

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