Rising rail fees put charter trains at risk

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The Independent Online
LAST-MINUTE negotiations are being held to try to save hundreds of charter train trips which face the axe because of rising prices and rail privatisation.

Several tour companies which used to charter trains, such as Cheshire Railtours and Rail UK, have gone out of business and many others have cancelled trips because the higher charges made them uneconomic.

Some operators have said that the business, which consists mainly of "bucket and spade" trips to the seaside and excursions to obscure parts of the rail network for railway buffs, is no longer viable "unless the privatisation process is reversed". Currently, the number of charter trips being operated is down by 40 per cent from last year.

All steam trips have already been cancelled until further notice, partly because of the increased charges but also because the hot weather has made the fire risk too high as plant growth on railway embankments is no longer cut back.

The problem, according to David Latimer of Cheshire Railtours, is that Railtrack, which took over all the track and stations from British Rail last year, has imposed massive charges for trains using the network. He adds that there is a second problem: "You now have to deal with so many fragmented bits of the rail network that breakdowns in communication lead to delays and cancellations."

He cites examples of train crews not being where they were supposed to be, and Mr Latimer says he will "consider returning to running rail tours only if a future government brings about a reunification of the railways".

The Green Party, which wanted to run eight trains this year, encountered a series of difficulties causing cancellations and price rises. Originally, the price of the eight trains it had planned to run was pounds 65,250 but this went up by over 40 per cent to pounds 92,265 on 1 April, when Railtrack and RES raised their prices.

Nick Harvey, the Green Party's charter organiser, has managed to obtain a breakdown of the costs. These include pounds 3.50 per train mile, pounds 26 to stop at a station and pounds 250 per driver and conductor per day.

For a 400-mile trip, RES said it needed 10 drivers and conductors, each of which was charged at the full rate even though some only operated the train for 30 miles. Mr Harvey says that pounds 250 is more than a week's average gross pay for a driver. He also reckons that the money charged by Railtrack for some of the station stops does not find its way to the train operating companies leasing the stations from Railtrack.

Mr Harvey said: "Why should Railtrack charge exorbitant rates for track access, which place rail at such a great disadvantage with road travel? We reckon that with these charges the cost of a rail coach over a year would be 350 times the cost of a bus."

The talks currently taking place are between Waterman Railways, which took over British Rail's charter train unit last year, Railtrack and Rail Express Systems, the mail and parcels arm of BR, which has the responsibility of hiring locomotives to the charter trains.

Peter Waterman's company owns 270 coaches and eight locomotives and many tour operators book trains through him. He said he was appalled at the level of charges which Railtrack and RES had been imposing.

However, some operators blame Mr Waterman for increasing the charges. Terry Thorp of Nottingham-based Classic Days said: "We feel that Waterman Railways overcharged us for a train we ran earlier this year. We asked for a breakdown of the costs and were refused it."

Mr Waterman, more famous for his activities as record promoter and producer for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, defends his company: "We have reduced our own costs to the bare minimum. We are offering operators a much better deal than they ever had."

However, he is fighting the high charges imposed by Railtrack and RES: "The trouble with them is that they have never had to deal with the private sector before. They just can't seem to get their heads round the idea that if we run trains, they make some money, and if we don't they get nothing."

He dismisses the whole concept of Railtrack charging per mile of usage of the track: "It's crazy to think that it costs Railtrack pounds 3.50 for every mile one of my trains travels. The effect on the track is completely marginal." He complains too that Railtrack will not offer a discount, despite him "buying in bulk".

Mr Waterman says that he is suffering because he is at the cutting edge of rail privatisation: "At the moment, I am the only private operating company. I can tell you, it's very lonely out here fighting these battles."