Transport: Commuters pay the price for trains that run on time

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The Independent Online
Rail privatisation was supposed to ensure that train tickets would be capped at or below inflation. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, explains why the legislative small print will mean that hundreds of thousands of commuters into London will face fare rises of up to 5.3 per cent.

Eight passenger train companies serving the capital have been given the go-ahead to raise fares 2 per cent above the July rate of inflation because they have bettered their performance targets.

"I think it is right for passengers who have seen a better service to pay more for it," said John O'Brien, the franchising director, who oversees the passenger rail network. But the move has incensed rail campaigners - who point out that the previous government had made great play of the promise that key fares would be "pegged" below or at inflation.

Last year, the then transport minister, John Watts, wrote to one concerned Tory colleague that "for three years from 1 January operators will not be able to increase key fares overall above the rate of inflation. Thereafter those fares will be capped at 1 per cent below RPI for each of the next four years".

Companies that have the option of bringing in 5.3 per cent rises are North London Railways, Connex South Central, Thames and LTS (London Tilbury and Southend) railways.

In addition, fares will be allowed to rise by 5.3 per cent on Connex South Eastern's Kent Coast routes, by up to 4.8 per cent on Great Eastern, and by 4.3 per cent on West Anglia Great Northern's "West Anglia" route.

Those services which have failed to meet the punctuality and reliability targets will be forced to reduce their fares. Passengers on South West Trains, who faced hundreds of cancellations a week earlier this year, will have below- inflation rises when the new fares are introduced in the New Year.

SWT's suburban routes will have fares of 2.5 per cent while the company's fare rise on long-distance routes will be only 1.3 per cent. The companies allowed to introduce above-inflation rises are the ones which performed above their targets between July 1995 to July 1997.

Thames Trains, which runs services from London to Surrey, Berkshire and Warwickshire, yesterday said it would not impose the extra increase. "We have improved on our punctuality target of 92 per cent and we feel that this increase will not help grow our business," a spokesman said.

Mr O'Brien said that train companies had the right not to impose the full rise - but would have an equivalent amount of cash lopped from their grant regardless. This will make it difficult for many train operators not to implement the rise. Great Eastern will lose pounds 1.3m and Connex South Central will miss pounds 1.6m from its grant if they do not increase fares.

Jonathan Bray, co-ordinator for the pressure group Save Our Railways, said: "Promises to passengers have been broken. Ministers in the last government promised there would not be above-inflation rises. There may have been details of the London commuter route rises in the small print of rail privatisation but very few people knew about it."

l The rail regulator's plan to introduce league tables which would rate operators on the accuracy and impartiality of their customer information has floundered because of "flaws" in the investigation. Earlier this year John Swift QC, the rail regulator sent hundreds of researchers out to pose as passengers and identify the apparent failure of train operators to furnish travellers with "correct" train information.

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

By June, Mr Swift was confidently predicting that the results would be released in "a few weeks".

Three months later and there is little sign of his office producing any tables. In fact, officials cannot promise the results will be out by November adding that "it takes time to validate the methodology".

The problem for Mr Swift - who is keen to champion the consumer - is that his investigators have unwittingly asked the wrong questions.

Train operators, who feared that the study may uncover serious irregularities, have had a field day overturning the regulator's results.

First, there was the use of English. Train firms pointed out that when a "customer" asked for the "fastest train to London", booking clerks were entitled to offer the next available ride to London - which would arrive before the quickest service. Mr Swift backed down.

Another problem arose when researchers asked for the cheapest fare - they marked down companies who did not offer Apex tickets. But operators pointed out that when these advance fares are sold out clerks have no option but to offer Supersaver tickets.

How fares will change

Company Fare change

from July 1997

(against inflation at 3.3%)

Chiltern +0.2%

Great Eastern +1.5

LTS +2.0

North London +2.0

Connex South Central - South London +2.0

Connex South Central - Sussex Coast +2.0

Connex South Eastern - Kent Link -0.7

Connex South Eastern - Kent Coast +2.0

South West Trains - Suburban -0.8

South West Trains - Long Distance -2.0

Thames +2.0

Thameslink -1.3

West Anglia Great Northern - West Anglia +1.0

West Anglia Great Northern - Great Northern -0.8

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