Timetable chaos robs passengers of cheapest train fares

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The Independent Online
PASSENGERS TRYING to book cheap rail tickets for Easter will encounter yet another fiasco as rail chiefs blamed one another yesterday for delays to the publication of timetables.

Rail companies were hoping to tell passengers today which services would be running, but that information will not be available on many routes because no one knows when engineering work will begin or end, it is alleged.

This means that those wanting to travel on specific trains where discounted fares are valid, will not be able to buy the tickets. It could also mean the state-backed infrastructure organisation, Network Rail, will have to pay passengers compensation for services that fail to materialise.

The news emerged as the Rail Passengers' Council (RPC) revealed that more than seven out of 10 calls received by its new national hotline were from passengers complaining they could not book ahead.

Network Rail was hoping to give travellers six weeks' notice of the Easter timetable, following the situation before Christmas when passengers could only book two weeks ahead on most long-distance routes. On some lines there were only days to spare. On other routes passengers had booked on non-existent services and were entitled to taxis to get them to their destination. Industry sources say that on Boxing Day hundreds of cabs were provided for passengers turning up at Euston, one of which had to go to Aberdeen, reputedly at a cost of more than pounds 600.

Train operators intend to give Network Rail a roasting over its alleged inability to plan ahead at a summit organised by the Office of the Rail Regulation today. Passengers had been promised that by now they would be able to book six weeks in advance. The notice period was meant to increase to eight weeks in the summer and 12 weeks by September - the industry target imposed by the Conservative government ahead of privatisation in 1996. Virgin Trains said yesterday it was only able to give two weeks' notice of weekend services - three weeks' on Saturdays on the west coast main line.

Today's summit promises to be a battle between the train companies and the infrastructure organisation. A spokesman for Network Rail said that it had set engineering works for Easter in the first week in January and it had not "changed a jot".

He said train operators kept making "late bids" to change the timetable. "There is no reason why the cheapest fares should not be on sale," he said.

One industry source argued that there was an incentive for train operators to say that discounted tickets were not available. While an Apex return fare to Manchester cost pounds 20, a Saver ticket - available on a "turn up and go" basis on off-peak trains - cost pounds 50.

A senior source at a train operator said that on most long-distance routes the notice period was around three weeks. "We put in our final requests to amend the timetable 12 weeks ahead. We find there is a delay in Network Rail coming back to us and that is why there is no accurate final timetable.

"There is no incentive for us to fail to give a reasonable notice period. We tend to lose passengers who can't get Apex fares. They either go by coach or don't make the journey."

Yesterday, First Great Western told its passengers that it could not even guarantee the timetable for this weekend because of engineering work.

The RPC said that 72 per cent of the calls received by its new national call centre involved complaints about booking advance tickets.

The council said its new centralised system, which replaced regional telephone lines, meant that a day-by-day assessment could be made of which issues were uppermost in passengers' minds.