Confusion fear on BR franchise line: Government hails range of fares on Gatwick route as passengers' gain. Martin Whitfield reports

NEW FARES on the first British Rail franchise route to Gatwick airport were hailed by the Government yesterday as the first 'tangible benefits of privatisation' but left many consumers confused and suspicious.

Passengers from the airport will have the choice of five single fares to central London, ranging from a basic pounds 7.50 to Victoria, pounds 8.60 for the non-stop Gatwick Express and pounds 9.00 for Thameslink's service to King's Cross.

But restrictions on return tickets, season tickets and from destinations other than Victoria make comparisons for anything other than a standard single fare almost impossible. The new fares begin on Sunday.

The choice of Gatwick Express for the first franchise was made because of its supposed simplicity as a discrete InterCity service with no intermediate stops. It is designed to minimise problems of through ticketing with different operators arguing over their respective revenues on a journey involving more than one franchise company.

British Rail has opted to avoid such complexity by offering just one fare - the higher Gatwick Express fare - on through journeys.

Rufus Barnes, secretary of the London Regional Passenger Committee, predicted complete confusion when InterCity franchises on lines to Peterborough and Reading began competition with Network SouthEast. He feared holders of one type of ticket could be barred from a competitor's trains to the same destination.

Managers recruited to run the 'shadow' Gatwick operation in a six-month trial under BR ownership have said they would be interested in bidding when tenders are invited from the private sector next year. Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Transport, said management bids were likely in all 25 franchises so far announced.

The lowest fare for the Gatwick service comes from BR's suburban Network SouthEast. It has lowered its single charge by pounds 1.10 to pounds 7.50 to compete with the faster non-stop Gatwick Express.

Marketing itself as a premium product, Gatwick Express has held its current fares and initially expects to lose between 5 and 10 per cent of its passengers as a result.

The more complex issues of the renewal of Gatwick Express's 20-year-old rolling stock and the charge to be levied by Railtrack - a separate company envisaged to manage track and signals - are unresolved. More private-sector involvement in rolling stock leasing deals is inevitable with the charges being made up in expected growth and a reduction in costs.

Thameslink, the third BR company operating on the 26-mile route to Gatwick, is following Network SouthEast with a pounds 7.50 single fare to London Bridge with 50p increments to stations at Blackfriars/City Thameslink, Farringdon and King's Cross.

Gatwick Express and Network SouthEast each boast four trains an hour while Thameslink has a service every 30 minutes, with more in peak periods. The journey takes a minimum of 30 minutes on Gatwick Express and between four and seven minutes longer on Network SouthEast because of stops at East Croydon and Clapham Junction.

All tickets will be available from every ticket booth at Victoria and Gatwick stations despite the labelling of booths in the liveries of the separate companies.

Mr Freeman said the difference was that passengers were being offered a choice for the first time. They could choose whether they paid the pounds 1.10 extra for more comfort and a five-minute shorter journey time. Passengers with through tickets to and from stations outside the Network SouthEast area could use any service. Those with Network SouthEast tickets would have to pay the pounds 1.10 Gatwick Express premium.

----------------------------------------------------------------- FARES FROM GATWICK TO LONDON ----------------------------------------------------------------- Gatwick NSE Thameslink Express (pounds) (pounds) (pounds) Gatwick - Victoria single 8.60 7.50 - Gatwick - Victoria CDR 11.00 8.50 - Gatwick - London Bridge single - - 7.50 Gatwick - London Bridge CDR - - 8.50 Gatwick - City Thameslink single - - 8.00 Gatwick - Kings Cross single - - 9.00 Gatwick - Kings Cross CDR - - 10.00 Gatwick - Victoria WS 54.40 44.60 - Gatwick - City Thameslink WS - 44.60 - Gatwick - Kings Cross WS - - 48.00 CDR = cheap day return; WS = weekly season. -----------------------------------------------------------------

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