Rail firms ordered to improve or face fines

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The Independent Online
The rail regulator yesterday threatened private rail companies with heavy fines if they do not improve their services.

John Swift QC, whose extensive powers include the power to impose unlimited cash penalties and modify train licences, targeted four areas where operators will have to "do better than they are at the moment".

New owners needed to improve the information passengers get about train running times and also upgrade timetable information provided by telephone inquiry bureaux as well as significantly better arrangements for disabled people at stations.

The regulator also singled out the sale of tickets by train companies as a matter for particular concern. Earlier this year, his office sent hundreds of investigators out to pose as passengers and identify the apparent failures of train operators to provide accurate and impartial information about fares.

More than 5,000 inquiries at booking offices and via passengers' phone lines were made by researchers to check how far sales staff provided information about alternative routes and ticket prices.

The results of Mr Swift's survey will be released in "a few weeks". Yesterday he refused to elaborate on its findings, however, senior aides to the regulator confirmed that tough action would be taken. "We promised in January to right any wrongs and considering the preliminary findings we shall be taking action," said one official.

The action was launched after Which? magazine, published by the Consumers' Association, last year said it had made more than 250 inquiries or purchases at 28 stations or inquiry points around the country and found train companies were overcharging nine out of 10 rail passengers.

The Consumers' Association yesterday welcomed the moves. "But it is worrying that he has to remind train companies of such simple objectives as co- ordinating services and delivering impartial and accurate ticket information."

Train companies will be expected to produce the plans for new ticketing arrangements by the end of this year. "There are still challenges to be met and the industry is committed to meeting and exceeding them," said Ivor Warburton, the incoming chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, the group which represents all 25 private rail firms.

It is the second time in seven days that the regulator has weighed in on the side of the consumer. Last week, Mr Swift launched a fresh attack on Railtrack, the company that owns the nation's track and signalling, criticising its investment record and launching a review of up to pounds 300m in public subsidies the company receives.

However, on the day that the rail regulator sought to highlight the need for better network benefits, the pressure group Save Our Railways revealed that train companies were secretly introducing new restrictions on the Network card - which gives passengers big discounts on train tickets in the south-east.

"The Network card makes rail travel more affordable for tens of thousands of travellers. Rail privatisation has only just been completed and already the privatised companies are conspiring to get rid of it," said Jonathan Bray, a spokesman for Save Our Railways.

A spokesman for ATOC, which markets the card, said that it had been a victim of its own success. "There are about 430,000 cards in use. Around 50 per cent of all journeys are made by 14 per cent of card holders - most of whom are commuters. As the Network card was meant to be used by leisure travellers, we will be introducing restrictions in September."