Off-peak rail fares set for huge rise

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PRIVATISED TRAIN companies face another dressing down by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, after it emerged they plan to raise fares by as much as 10 times the rate of inflation in the new year.

The firms are taking advantage of government rules that block raising commuter fares, but allow unlimited increases on certain off-peak and first-class tickets.

Train companies across the country are to announce inflation-busting rises on tickets used by business people and on off-peak fares aimed at leisure and holiday travellers.

The increases could deter people from using trains, frustrating the Government's stated aim of getting people out of cars and on to public transport. However, the industry defended the move, saying fares had fallen overall since privatisation and that the increases affected a tiny fraction of the number of tickets on offer.

The news of the increases comes just days after the railway industry was summoned for a meeting with Mr Prescott and the Transport minister John Reid over their poor performance levels and told they would lose their franchises if they did not improve.

Midland Mainline is raising its open first-class return fare from Kettering to Sheffield by 26 per cent, although it is introducing a new first-class ticket, at a 30 per cent discount, which the company said made the existing fare redundant.

On the politically sensitive West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, where passenger complaints run at one for every 100 passenger journeys, there will be rises of up to 19 per cent.

First North Western, which the franchising director reprimanded for cancelling too many trains, has recently raised the single fare on a new service from Manchester to London by 150 per cent, although the company said the fare was always intended as an opening offer.

The Office of Passenger Rail Franchising said train companies could put up prices of only non-regulated tickets - first class, cheap day returns, supersavers and Apex. A spokeswoman said: "On these fares they have a choice to make. Either they can put up fares or they can get more passengers by keeping them down. We know what we would like, but it is a judgement for them."

Commuters are protected from above-inflation fare rises. Increases on 60 per cent of fares - season tickets, savers and standard returns - are pegged at 2.5 per cent.

Commuters into London will see further cuts as fares are linked to performance. Most of the 10 operators into the capital have been punished and allowed rises of only about 1.9 per cent. Only one service of Silverlink, which runs trains between the northern Home Counties and London Euston, can lift peak fares above the rate of inflation.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said the examples were a tiny proportion of the 40 million fares available on the network. The association's spokesman, David Campbell-Bannerman, said: "The vast majority of fares will rise by less than inflation. Average rail fares have already fallen by more than 1 per cent below inflation over the past two years and, as government figures show, that contrasts with a 15 per cent rise above inflation in the previous decade."

He said the increases applied to journeys where trains had to compete with motorways and airlines. "The unregulated fares are unregulated because Parliament did not feel there was a good reason to regulate them because of the strength of competition," he said.

Critics of privatisation say the fare rises were inevitable. The state subsidy to train companies will fall from pounds 1.4bn last year to pounds 400m in 2003, while the economic downturn is also expected to hit revenue.The companies say lack of network capacity prevents them increasing demand, so they have to raise unregulated fares.

Ticket Price Increases

Company Route Ticket Type Increase

First North Western Manchester-London Single 150%

Midland Mainline Kettering-Sheffield First Open 26%

Virgin London-Birmingham First Open 19%

Connex London-Horsham Open Return 6.4%

Virgin London-Manchester Open Return 10%