Fury at rail fare rises of up to 17%

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Britain's beleagured rail system was at the centre of a fresh political storm yesterday after train operators revealed fare increases of up to 17 per cent. The controversial rises come amid a sharp deterioration in the standard of services since Railtrack was taken into administration and at a time when the "headline" inflation rate has dipped to 0.9 per cent.

Operators enraged passenger groups by opting for a sharp hike in thousands of unregulated fares in January to compensate for tight control on those set by the Government.

The increases came as the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, admitted the rail system was worse than when Labour came to power in 1997. He defended his decision to declare Railtrack bankrupt and blamed the "failed Tory privatisation" for the state of the network. But Mr Byers insisted that his decision to place Railtrack in administration would result in noticeable improvements in punctuality, safety and comfort on the rails in time for the next General Election.

A survey conducted by The Independent showed that many off-peak prices would rise by between 1.6 per cent and five per cent, although some would be considerably higher.

Fares controlled by the Strategic Rail Authority, which makes up 40 per cent of the total, will be pegged to one percentage point below the inflation rate, which is effectively a reduction.

But the highest increase of 17 per cent – nearly 19 times the present inflation rate – will be paid by holders of first class season tickets on the Norwich to London route run by Anglia. A spokesman for the operator said the rise was pitched at a level the market would bear.

However a number of other operators have opted for hefty increases in some fares including Midland Mainline which increased its express "business" fares – first premier, first open, first saver and standard open – by 10 per cent.

Fares at Silverlink, which runs stopping services between the south-east of England and the Midlands will vary between a 1.2 per cent reduction and a 12 per cent increase on discounted fares between Euston and Birmingham New Street.

Increases at Connex, which operates from London into Kent will average two per cent, but shorter journeys in the suburbs of the capital will cost up to 10 per cent more.

Stewart Francis, the chairman of the Rail Passengers' Council said that "by and large" operators had either frozen fares or kept increases low.

Many London commuter fares had come down because of poor performance.

However he said the council was particularly concerned that on some routes "walk-on" fares had seen "massive" increases and some business passengers and season ticket holders would face rises of between 10 per cent to 17 per cent.

"After a year of appalling rail performance this is a real smack in the face for some passengers," he said.