Eclipse threatens travel shambles

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The Independent Online
IT'S TIME to let the plane take the strain. Thousands of eclipse- viewers heading for Devon and Cornwall this summer will find that, with rail fares verging on the astronomical, it may be cheaper to fly than go by train.

Travellers from London who fail to buy one of the limited number of discounted train tickets may have to pay a dazzling pounds 129 for a standard seat to the West Country - compared with pounds 108 for a flight from Gatwick.

Up to 12,000 people a day are expected to travel to the region by train in the days leading up to the eclipse on 11 August. But the privatised train companies have been criticised for failing to publish fares and timetables in advance, to meet what is expected to be an unprecedented demand for tickets. Tourist officials have warned that traffic problems - 200,000 people are expected to drive to Cornwall every day in the week before the eclipse - will be dramatically worsened if would-be train travellers turn to their cars instead.

Little more than three months from the eclipse on 11 August, the main train company serving the region, Great Western, has yet to publish timetables or fares. Another company, Virgin Trains, has withdrawn its cheapest fares for the two-week period leading up to the eclipse.

The delay on information about services for the eclipse has been blamed on privatisation, which means that each rail company operating in the region has had to submit closed bids to Railtrack for permission to run extra trains without knowing the plans of rival companies. The train companies say they are unable to publish their timetables until they are told by Railtrack how many extra trains they can run. Virgin wants to run one more train a day, Great Western three, while Wales and West wants to add extra carriages to its trains. Railtrack has been left with the logistical nightmare of trying to accommodate all the demands - which are exacerbated because much of the line in Cornwall is single track with only occasional passing places.

One of the busiest routes for eclipse visitors will be the M5, which runs from Birmingham to Devon. It will probably be even more congested because Virgin has withdrawn all Apex return tickets, priced at pounds 56, from Birmingham to Penzance. Almost all supersavers (pounds 75) for the period, from Birmingham to Penzance, have sold out, leaving only savers (pounds 87) and full fare (pounds 129) remaining. These prices are higher than a flight from London Gatwick to Newquay (pounds 108.60) with British Airways. Virgin says it has also taken large numbers of first class bookings (pounds 179) for the return journey.

Great Western, which operates out of Paddington station in London, has suspended its supersaver tickets to Penzance (pounds 54) from 8 August and its ticket sales operators are telling callers they cannot guarantee them any tickets. It has yet to publish its fares and timetables, even though it has a database of around 6,000 people on a waiting list for travel. "We are looking to run extra trains during the period," said a spokeswoman. The fares, when announced, would reflect only the "normal" seasonal rise which will be introduced this month. "Discounted fares will still be available," she said.

The Central Rail Users' Group, which represents the views of passengers, says the companies are "milking the market" by cutting the cheaper fares. "It's nothing new to cut out the lowest fares at peak times but it's rather ungenerous of them to milk the market," said spokesman Phil Wilks. "Not letting people know what will be available and when it will be available just isn't on. It will just add to traffic problems."

Gage Williams, who has overall responsibility from the Devon and Cornwall county councils for the logistics of the eclipse, is unhappy with the privatised network's approach. "Railtrack has a profound problem which is down to under-investment in the tracks over the years, which we are all now paying for," he said. "It comes down to the fragmentation of the railway under privatisation, which means the network has difficulty in coping with a special one-off timetable.

"The problem is there are half-a-dozen train companies all trying to fit in extra services. We run 21 trains a day west of Plymouth and we'd like to crank it up to 31 a day during the eclipse period. If I had a family and was dependent on trains then I would be quite frustrated by this."

Tourism officials in Cornwall - already facing a drop in bookings because of the high prices charged by some hotels - are also unhappy with the train companies. "The fact the trains won't accept advance bookings is a problem for us," said Jack Johnston, marketing and promotions officer for Restormel Borough Council in Newquay, which has written to several train companies to express its disquiet. "Given the worries we have about traffic jams it would be helpful if we could encourage people to come by train."

A spokesman for Railtrack said the company was confident that timetables would still be published 12 weeks ahead of the eclipse - the minimum time in advance laid down by rail regulators. "We hope to accommodate all the extra trains the companies want," said a spokesman.

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