'Chaotic' rail pricing system is an insult to passengers, MPs say

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The Independent Online

Rail passengers are being forced off trains and into their cars by an "impenetrable" advance ticketing system and "exorbitant" walk-on fares, according to a scathing analysis by an all-party group of senior MPs.

The rail regulator must be "tough and grown-up" to ensure that the needs of customers are put before the profits of private train operators, the Commons Transport Committee said.

Britain will never meet its targets for carbon emissions unless a "complacent" Government insists on an "affordable and user-friendly" railway to encourage people to reject cars in favour of trains. The report, entitled How Fair Are The Fares?, also urges ministers to resist any temptation to scrap "saver" tickets as part of its current review of pricing. Saver tickets allow passengers to turn up at stations and buy relatively cheap tickets on off-peak trains.

The document points out that the state now invests £87m per week in the railways, which was a recognition that the system was a vital public service. But neither passengers nor taxpayers received value for money, it said.

"The current system has had more than a decade to prove its worth ... In terms of value for money and user-friendliness it has proven to be an abject failure. Fare structures are chaotic and pricing absurd because they are determined by commercial considerations rather than consideration for the public's good and the value for money for passengers and taxpayers," the paper says.

The committee attacked the "deeply fragmented and highly complex" array of different tickets offered by the companies - depending on when people travelled and how far in advance they book. It was an "insult to the passenger," it said, that passengers were faced with up to a dozen different tickets with "subtly different" conditions and descriptions.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said that while there were issues to address, the MPs' report was over the top. George Muir, director general of the association, said: "This report calls for cutting rail fares but without having the courage to admit the huge increase in subsidy this would mean. As for fares complexity and the other things the report complains about, we acknowledge that there are issues to address, but this report is completely over the top."

The Liberal Democrats however said fares in Britain were the most expensive in Europe. For £10, a passenger can travel more than 600 miles in Latvia, more than 200 in Italy, but a "measly" 38 miles in Britain.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman said: "Labour have been in power for nine years and yet have still not got the basics right."

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union, said the report was an indictment of the private sector's ability to operate the railways as a public service. "The private train operators cannot see beyond the interests of their shareholders, and operate pricing policies aimed simply at maximising revenues and profit," he said.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the rail passengers' group Passenger Focus, said that while passenger satisfaction had improved, they still did not believe they were getting value for money.

"It can be difficult to get a good value ticket, so some passengers feel like it's a lottery. The system is too complicated so train companies will have to work really hard to simplify the way they sell tickets." He said saver tickets had suffered a "slow death" because of increasing restrictions which had "throttled" their usefulness.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairwoman of the Transport Committee, said the Government had allowed train operators to focus "ruthlessly" on maximising their revenue. "The result is an impenetrable fare system and exorbitant prices for walk-on travel. We are deeply concerned at the complacency and lack of strategic thinking by a Government seemingly content with this lamentable state of affairs," she said.

The Rail minister Derek Twigg said that the Government was urging train companies to simplify the ticketing system. "We will, of course, consider this report and respond fully to it."

Meanwhile, it emerged that cheap day and saver fares on First Great Western routes could go up by 3.5 per cent, while first class season tickets could rise by between 5 and 11 per cent, from 11 June. Other cheap day and saver fares will be reduced, according to internal documents.

First Great Western owner FirstGroup announced this week that operating profits in its UK rail division rose by 23.4 per cent to £79.6m.