Fares to soar on worst-run trains firm

Virgin Trains: Britain's most unreliable rail company plans to push up charges by `as much as market can stand'
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DESPITE VIRGIN'S reputation as Britain's least reliable train company, its passengers on England's main West Coast line face fare rises of more than seven times the rate of inflation.

Full second-class tickets will rise from pounds 129 to pounds 141 and first- class fares from pounds 176 to pounds 192 - some 9.5 per cent.

Passengers who have been paying cut-price fares could face much greater rises. Where services have become crowded, the firm has withdrawn the availability of Virgin Value tickets. Some passengers have even told The Independent that they could lose their jobs because they cannot pay the increased fares.

The turn-up-and-go "Saver" fare for off-peak travel from London to the North-west of England is to rise by 3 per cent - more than twice the inflation rate. The fare rises are due to come in on 29 September.

The news follows the publication of official figures showing that Virgin was responsible for the highest rate of delays and cancellations of any train company and that it had also received the most complaints.

Jon Carter, deputy director of the passengers' watchdog, the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee said that Virgin's policy was simply to push up fares as far as the market would stand. Some fares might be reduced, but overall the impact would be to increase the company's revenue. "We are concerned at the complexity of fares generally, but we are concerned in particular about Virgin. There are some spectacularly cheap fares to be had - but there are so few of them.

"The company is adopting the same approach as the airlines. You could find yourself sitting next to someone who has paid three times more for his ticket. It sometimes depends on when you bought it. Nobody really understands the system."

Figures from the committee showed that one in five Virgin trains arrived late - the worst record of any train operator. Richard Branson's two companies (Virgin West Coast and Virgin CrossCountry) also received by far the most complaints of all 25 train firms,according to the rail regulator. Readers of The Independent who wrote to us in the "Great Railway Fiascos" series also complained most about Virgin. Of the 55 protests that related to a named operator, 30 applied to Mr Branson's group - or 55 per cent. The nearest "competitors" were the Wales & West company with four and Great Western with three.

Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Trains, confirmed that where some services had become overcrowded, cheap returns had been withdrawn.

A Virgin spokesman said that while some fares would be going up, additional low fares had been introduced. After 29 September, for instance, it would be possible to buy a return fare to London from Aberystwyth, a journey of 474 miles, for pounds 26 and London to Blackpool, 452 miles, for pounds 25.