Private firms are being fined hundreds of pounds for overcrowded trains which often leave travellers abandoned on platforms. These Passengers In Excess of Capacity - or pixcees - are forcing private firms to return taxpayer's subsidies.
Connex South Eastern, which runs services between London and Kent, has fallen victim to the payment regime. In January, the electrical circuits of 16 trains were damaged during by snow and ice.
The shortage of rolling stock meant that commuters were crammed into trains half the normal length. New guidelines mean that firms are fined if each standing passenger is not surrounded by "0.55 square metres of space". Over a number of days, the French firm Connex had to pay hundreds of pounds in fines.
Despite the penalties the MP for Kent seat of Thanet South, Jonathan Aitken, accused Connex of "short changing customers and then fobbing them off with lame excuses". Mr Aitken said shorter trains had "become increasingly commonplace" in Ramsgate.
Opraf, the government body which let all 25 of the train companies and oversees the smooth running of the network, uses a computer system which alerts it to any abuses on the network. If a train company tries to run a train shorter than its contract allows, without informing Opraf, the computer immediately alerts civil servants.
Penalties are severe. If a train fails to turn up, the operator can be charged more than pounds 700. In 1995, nearly 15 per cent of the 2,235 services in to and out of London were "too full".
But passenger watchdogs claim the system is open to abuse. They claim that under government guidelines train operators have to "ensure that operators plan their services in such a way that no passenger is required to stand for more than 20 minutes".
John Cartledge, assistant director of the London Regional Passengers Committee, said: "We have held talks with Opraf on this but they have yet to tell us how they are going to make sure it happens."
Mr Cartledge also says that Opraf's guidelines published last year claimed that a survey would be carried out every six months to determine how many trains would be needed to meet customer demand. Opraf has only carried out one poll in the first nine months of the private railway and is still crunching through the details.
The first survey of the passenger network was completed in the autumn, Opraf said, and there would be no tests this year. "British Rail carried out one internal survey a year. We have no plans to do more," said a spokesman.Reuse content