Rail passengers warned to expect further delays

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The Independent Online

Long-suffering commuters were warned that they face a "winter of discontent" on Britain's beleaguered rail network.

After suffering "hell" in the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster last October, passengers were told that in the coming months even minor weather problems could cause severe disruption.

The Rail Passengers Council (RPC) launched its annual report that warned the timetable was fragile and travellers are in for a "rough ride".

Stewart Francis, chairman of the council, also warned commuters that train operators were eroding the "turn up and go" railway with massive increase in fares for those who do not book in advance.

"This has resulted in ludicrously high fares," he said. "It can cost more than £200 to go half way up the country." Mr Francis revealed that the Strategic Rail Authority had been ordered by the Government to consider extending statutory powers to limit price rises.

The industry should be given another 12 months to improve services or ministers should order a radical shake-up, possibly involving Railtrack sharing responsibility for the track with train operators, the council chairman said.

The council's annual report said passengers had suffered the worst disruption in peace time in the 12 months to last March and that there were no signs of long term improvement. The Hatfield disaster that killed four people prompted a huge engineering programme in which hundreds of speed restrictions were imposed all over the network.

The document said the derailment had exposed the "rotten state of the railways" and the ill-considered privatisation of the industry.

Mr Francis said train operators should come clean and admit they would be fortunate to run only about four out of five trains on time.

Complaints made to the RPC in the 12 months ending March 2001 had fallen by four per cent, but Mr Francis pointed out that this was largely due to a different counting method.

Present at the launch of the report on Friday was David Da Costa, chairman of a West Country-based passenger group which is organising a national boycott of train services on 9 October.

Mr Da Costa said his group had received more than 20,000 complaints from passengers in the past year.

Mr Francis said he could understand the frustration of commuters who were planning to take part in the boycott but added: "I don't think that strike action by passengers will actually solve the problems of passengers."

The Association of Train Operating Companies said companies had learnt many lessons after Hatfield and were working to improve services.

Railtrack said the current delay levels were unacceptable but work was continuing to return train performance "to the levels the travelling public have a right to expect".

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, said the Government's task was to restore public confidence in the network. Passengers should see improvements in the coming year with increasing investment, he said.

The Shadow Transport Minister, Bernard Jenkin, said the Government had to give the railways "more space to devise its own policies and solutions".

Liberal Democrat Transport spokesman Tom Brake said there was a need for "a radical reform of the rail network".