Train firms warned over rising fares

THE GOVERNMENT yesterday warned the privatised train companies to improve their performance after a survey showed some fares were rising above inflation, despite a fall in reliability and punctuality.

The survey came as the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising announced that regulated fares would rise by less than the rate of inflation next year for many commuters because of poor performance by a number of train companies.

Some passengers on the worst-performing lines in the South-east will face rises of 0.5 per cent. London commuter fares, on average, will rise 1.9 per cent next year. Elsewhere prices will be capped to a maximum increase of 2.5 per cent.

But for fares on routes operated by nine of the 25 train operating companies, prices increased in real terms, despite a dip in performance, according to research by a passenger watchdog. The Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee (CRUCC) also found fares went up by an average of 3.1 per cent - against an inflation rise of 3.7 per cent during the same period. John Reid, the Transport Minister, said he was concerned about the rise in off-peak fares, which are not subject to price caps.

"Passengers will find it hard to understand how this can happen when many train operators are still performing badly. Train operators will clearly have to consider whether increasing off-peak fares is the best way to attract new rail passengers." Dr Reid said the Government had made clear that the quality of service would be a key criterion in any future franchise renegotiations.

"The Government will do everything in its power to ensure train-operating companies redouble their efforts to deliver a good service at a reasonable price," he added.

The CRUCC examined 1,900 fares using eight different ticket types and an average of nine journeys for 24 of the 25 train operating companies. "Many passengers have clearly benefited from these lower fares, but, welcome as this 3.1 per cent average increase level may be, it does mask larger increases by some train companies and reductions by others," said Jon Cater, CRUCC's acting national director.

Figures from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising for the year to June showed half the rail companies suffered a fall in reliability, while 48 of the 66 of rail routes were less punctual. John O'Brien, the franchising director, said: "I have spoken frequently of my disappointment over deteriorating performance levels over the last year." But he added that the decision to peg commuter fares would provide "some compensation for passengers, many of whom will be paying less for their tickets next year in real terms". The prices are based on a July 1998 inflation figure of 3.5 per cent.