Fare deals that go off the rails

If you want to know about rail fares, do not ask the national enquiry bureau. Or any of the privatised train companies. According to a survey by the Liberal Democrats, the enquiry system for the railways has become the "second lottery" because the information is so inaccurate.

For example, those heading for Christmas in Glasgow from London and coming back after Hogmanay may be quoted pounds 58 return. Or, if they are a bit unluckier, they will be told it is pounds 72. Or pounds 135. The same goes for a day return from Southampton to Ipswich, on which answers from the national bureau ranged from pounds 31 to pounds 77.

According to the survey, the National Rail Enquiries Bureau and the train operators gave identical information on only one of ten routes. The survey, involving 150 requests, revealed that the same operators gave different prices for identical journeys and the national bureau frequently contradicted itself.

On Leeds to Rugby, Cross Country trains quoted pounds 80.30 to pounds 120.30, but the best offer was with the national bureau which quoted pounds 64. Unfortunately, the bureau does not sell tickets. And on West Coast InterCity, no price was available since its number remained unanswered despite 25 attempts.

No one was available to answer calls yesterday at the offices of the Association of Train Operators, which runs the national enquiry service set up this year to ensure that impartial information is given out.

The Liberal Democrats blame privatisation and the failure of the rail regulator to enforce the rules. David Chidgey, the party's transport spokesman, said: "Britain's ticket-enquiry system is Britain's second lottery. The information is so inconsistent that I am writing to ask the National Rail Enquiries Bureau to answer publicly the questions we have been trying to find an answer to."

David Charlesworth, who conducted the survey, sought help from the Consumers' Association, but all they could add was that there was just one person in the country with the answers - a rail-timetable consultant called Barry Doe who lives on the south coast. And his phone number remains a secret.