Huge rise in trains cancelled and late

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PASSENGER watchdogs received a record number of complaints in the first full year of rail privatisation because of an "appalling" service, which on some lines was as "bad as British Rail".

A report by the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee blamed the rise in complaints on "a truly dreadful performance" by some operators and a huge increase in cancellations, delays and overcrowding.

Complaints soared to 19,792 - a record increase of 103 per cent in the past year - which saw the last of the remaining lines privatised. Passengers' anger has been fuelled by the rising tide of late trains. Latest statistics show more than 257,000 trains were delayed and a further 47,000 cancelled in 1997-98.

"It is extremely disconcerting that performance has plummeted in the first full year that trains have operated in the private sector," the report disclosed.

The National Rail Enquiry Service, the telephone train- information service, also came under attack. Last year train companies were fined hundreds of thousands of pounds after operators left the phones ringing.

The watchdog said the telephone service has improved but the quality of information had not. The committee pointed out that there had been a rise of 246 per cent in complaints concerned with "the accuracy of information".

Poor performance has also proved a problem. The report noted that of the 53 routes specified for the rail network, "in terms of punctuality two out of three service routes provided a worse service".

London commuter services were singled out for poor performance. Connex South Eastern's Kent Link line experienced a 67 per cent increase in cancellations and an 11 per cent rise in late arrivals.

Great Western, the first InterCity service to be franchised to the private sector, was also highlighted as a poor performer. The report said the fast service linking London and the south-west "experienced some of the worst delays, with the number of late trains amounting to more than 6,000".

Richard Branson's Virgin Trains, which serves hundreds of big towns in Britain, was criticised not only for running 30.5 per cent of its trains late on one route but also for its fares policy, which has seen some cheap day returns rise by as much as 15 per cent in 12 months. "Virgin has significantly increased the price of many Super Savers on cross-country routes ... we are concerned at the possible loss of walk-up fares."

David Bertram, chairman of the committee, challenged train companies to halve the amount of time trains had to run late before passengers received compensation - and to double the compensation paid. He said: "If operators say that passengers are their primary concern, they should alter the regulations."

The industry hit back. Christopher Garnett, a member of the board of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said there had also been a number of successes, including millions invested in new trains and stations.

"The railway industry agrees that there is still much to do to redress decades of under-investment and to match rising customer expectations following privatisation."