Rail complaints rise by nearly 30%

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BRITAIN'S TRAIN companies came in for an unprecedented roasting yesterday after complaints from passengers reached a new post-privatisation high.

Railtrack's failure to invest was blamed as a major cause of delays as 27 per cent more travellers registered criticisms than in the previous 12 months, a 154 per cent increase in two years. The Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee (CRUCC), a national passenger watchdog, revealed that most complaints focused on punctuality and reliability.

The largest proportion of late trains ran on Richard Branson's two Virgin services, Cross Country and West Coast, where one in five services were unpunctual, according to the CRUCC's annual report.

Other companies coming under fire included Cardiff Railway, where cancellations rose by a massive 362 per cent in the year to March and delays were up by 64 per cent. Cancelled trains were up by 196 per cent at Virgin Cross Country and 178 per cent at the Great North Eastern Railway. Delays rose by 87 per cent on Chiltern Railways and 61 per cent at Central Trains.

While fares generally increased by 3.1 per cent, slightly lower than inflation, the average masked some "huge" rises, according to the annual report. West Coast SuperSavers jumped 15.4 per cent and standard returns rose by up to 13.5 per cent. There were welcome reductions of up to 11.8 per cent, but these largely involved tickets which were only valid on the trains of one operator and must be booked ahead. The watchdog registered concern that the growth of such deals undermined the "turn up and go" ethos of the railways.

Some of the worst performers, which included Connex, Gatwick Express, Silverlink and Northern Spirit, were responsible for some of the highest increases, while the better operators such as Thameslink and ScotRail, reduced fares in real terms, the report said.

On the plus side, the committee welcomed the 30 per cent reduction in complaints about the national telephone inquiry service and a decline in criticisms about personal security and safety.

However, David Bertram, chairman of the committee, said that too often punctuality and reliability had remained "stubbornly short of target". "Performance is simply not yet good enough over much of the network," he said.

Railtrack preferred not to reply officially to the allegations. A spokeswoman said, however, that the company was investing heavily in the infrastructure.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said operators were working hard to improve services. George Muir, director of the organisation, said companies were spending pounds 2bn on new trains. He said they had held their first national timetable conference with Railtrack to find ways of increasing services.

The Transport minister, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, condemned some of the punctuality and reliability figures as "unacceptable".

But he insisted on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that advances were being made. "We mustn't forget that the number of people using the railways is up 12 per cent, it's the highest for 40 years so we're the victims of success in some ways. What we need therefore, through the new rail Bill, is a system that pushes the investment much harder."