The only cheap long-distance train ticket that can be bought just before travel is expected to double in price. The "saver" fare, which is restricted to certain times of the day, is likely to be "repositioned as more of a premium ticket", the Strategic Rail Authority says.
The authority has come under intense pressure from train operators to ease the tight regulation of saver prices and Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, has given the industry until 2006 to find a more liberal system.
Passengers have criticised train companies for the huge cost of many "walk up and go" long-distance tickets. A peak-time standard return on a Virgin train from London Euston to Manchester, for instance costs £175.
A heavily restricted saver ticket costs £50. The first train available in the morning with a Saver ticket is the 11am and the last in the afternoon is the 3.55. The next available service is the 6.55pm. The "business" saver ticket is less restricted, but costs £102.
In an article in Rail magazine Barry Doe, an expert on fares, says: "When there is total freedom, the business saver will merely replace the saver. We can expect a doubling of saver fares for the freedom of walk-on leisure travel."
Mick Duncan, of the pressure group Transport 2000, said rail would have to remain a "flexible, affordable, walk-on" mode of transport to compete with the car. "This move makes no sense at all," he said. "Why move to a predominantly book-ahead system when the industry is investing heavily in high-frequency services?
"What is the point in a train from London to Birmingham every 15 minutes or to Manchester every 20 if you have to book your seat two weeks in advance to be able to afford to catch one of those trains? We have to save the saver as an affordable, walk-on leisure fare."
Peter Lawrence, chairman of the campaigning organisation Railfuture, said German railways had recently tried to move to a book-ahead system. "The result has been a fall in profits and uproar from passengers," he said. "The fallout has been so bad Deutsche Bahn has had to perform a rapid U-turn. We hope the SRA can learn from this fiasco and avoid making the same mistake here. Sprechen sie Deutsch?"
A spokesman for the SRA said the saver fare would be deregulated only if there was an improvement in performance. But, he added, the economics of the industry meant the public could "either have cheap walk-on fares or a sustainable future for the network".
Virgin has already asked the SRA to scrap the price caps on its saver tickets from next year so it can increase the cost by 20 per cent. Such plans could win the support of the authority because it wants to cut the massive subsidies it pays to train companies.
Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Trains, said services tended to be overcrowded and that selling cheap turn-up and go tickets made matters worse. For taxpayers to subsidise saver tickets was "crazy", he said. Rail operators say the present system means trains immediately after the last peak service are invariably packed by people taking advantage of cheaper fares.Reuse content