The government last night announced an investigation into claims that train companies are overcharging nine out of 10 rail passengers. John Watts, the railways minister said he would be asking British Rail to report on the details of a survey by the Consumers' Association which found that passengers were not being told about cheap fares.
Which? magazine, published by the association, said it had made more than 250 inquiries or purchases at 28 stations or inquiry points around the country and compared the responses with what should have been the correct answer. It said that in late August and early September it tested train companies' willingness to meet their obligation to give information about the cheapest ticket on a route even if it was for a service run by a rival and even if the journey time was longer.
Which? tested five routes - London-Bristol, London to Carmarthen and Swansea, London-Exeter, London-Bath and London-Birmingham. While the cheapest fare on the London-Bath route was South Wales and West's at pounds 22, InterCity West Coast ticket clerks in London said pounds 53 was the cheapest. Five days later, these clerks said the fare was pounds 45.
In total, the Which? team was quoted or charged fares which came to pounds 13,013 whereas if "unbiased" sales advice had been followed the figure would have been pounds 7,591; the average overcharge was pounds 24 and the highest was pounds 70.20; in some cases association investigators were sold invalid tickets.
"The new-look British Rail failed our test miserably," said Which? "Of the 57 tickets we actually bought, 54 were more expensive than the correct fare. In many cases, the overpriced fares given were more than double the cheapest fare which is listed clearly in the National Fares Manual used by train staff - the same manual we used to identify the cheapest fares for available services."
Brian Wilson, Labour's transport spokesman, said: "I fully support the Consumers' Association's call for franchising to be suspended in the light of this astonishing indictment. We have warned from the outset that individual operators would have no interest in maintaining the benefits which flow from having a national rail network."
Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, last night rejected calls from the association to halt the rail sell-off until an urgent review of ticketing is conducted. British Railways Board, dismissed the survey as misleading: "It was taken four months ago and concentrates on a handful of routes not representative of the experience of the majority of passengers."