Commuters condemn BR price rise plans: Tory backbenchers say 'unreasonable' increases would create political storm

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The Independent Online
THE prospect of the biggest ticket price rises in British Rail's history - as much as 11 times the inflation rate - brought angry reactions from Tory backbenchers and rail user groups.

Documents leaked to the Indepedent on Sunday reveal that Network SouthEast is considering increasing the cost of standard single tickets by 12 per cent, season tickets by 7.9 per cent and London travelcards by 16.2 per cent. Off-peak services also face cuts.

Keith Speed, Tory MP for Ashford in Kent, said: 'I don't believe the Secretary of State would approve 16 per cent fare rises when inflation is 1.4 per cent. If he did, there would be a political storm.' Andrew Bowden, MP for Brighton Kemptown, said rises of that order were 'unreasonable' and would 'go down like a lead balloon' among his constituents.

The proposed rises - dictated by the Government's targets for Network SouthEast in advance of privatisation - are thought to be the largest in real terms in British Rail's history. In the late Seventies there were rises of 50 per cent, but inflation was 20 per cent.

Michael Patterson, secretary of the Central Transport Consultative Committee, said yesterday that his organisation was 'very shocked' at the prospective increases.

He said the proposed rises, due in January, would provide a test of the powers of the new Rail Regulator, an independent authority to be set up under the British Rail privatisation Bill. The regulator will have the powers to review fare rises and veto them.

John Swift QC, a special adviser to the Department of Transport, is set to be the Rail Regulator when the Bill receives Royal Assent in the autumn. Mr Swift said yesterday it would be 'inappropriate' for him to comment until Parliament confirmed his position.

The national rail users' pressure group, the Railway Development Society, said that Network SouthEast was being targeted because it had a captive market. David Pickersgill, a society spokesman, said: 'The Government's idea is that the big cuts in services and the increases in fares be got in before May 1994 when the specifications for the rail franchises will be drawn up. Thus the Government will be able to say that privatisation did not bring about cuts or increases.'

He pointed out that BR is cutting services in the north of England from October. 'Services are being taken from rural lines to enhance busier routes. The idea before privatisation is to make busier routes look more profitable,' Mr Pickersgill said.

Brian Wilson, a Labour transport spokesman, called for rail privatisation to be abandoned. 'They cannot simply blunder on in the full knowledge that the huge costs involved in privatising and fragmenting the network are destined to be paid for by the travelling public,' he said.

He also condemned the plan to raise season ticket prices in December. Mr Wilson said the move was 'calculated to catch out the majority of season ticket holders', who normally renew in January.

Network SouthEast said yesterday that various options for next year's ticket pricing were being considered, but no decisions had been made.