Rail ticket nightmare as stations lose out

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The Independent Online

Up to 1,600 railway stations across Britain are to be stripped of their right to sell anything other than local tickets under secret plans put forward by the privatised train operating companies.

Up to 1,600 railway stations across Britain are to be stripped of their right to sell anything other than local tickets under secret plans put forward by the privatised train operating companies.

Only élite mainline stations would receive investment in sophisticated new ticket machinery next year, while the majority - including many hundreds of rural stations - would be told they can only take payment for local journeys.

The plans, drawn up in the past fortnight by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), have had very limited circulation among senior railway officials, but last night the association admitted it is planning to "simplify" the system, and could limit the sale of long distance tickets to a minority of stations.

In future, said a spokesman, most long distance tickets will be bought on the internet or over the phone.

This morning, Association of Train Operating Companies director of commercial services Philip Benham said the report was "ridiculous" and that he didn't recognise it.

But rural campaigners have been infuriated that their stations could be downgraded, a move that follows the recent closures of village banks and post offices.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England and the National Federation of Women's Institutes condemned the plans, saying they will force more traffic on to roads. In future, anyone who needs to travel long distance in a hurry will have to travel to a mainline station just to buy a ticket.

Last night, the Women's Institute said in a statement: "Our members will be shocked and alarmed. If people can buy tickets on the internet it should not be too much to expect them to be able to buy them at local stations."

Campaigners also fear that local ticket sales only would be the precursor to making the stations unmanned, rendering them unsupervised havens for muggers, drug-takers and gangs of youths. Removing a station's staff is also often the first step in reducing the number of trains calling there.

Stewart Francis, chair of the Government's passenger watchdog, the Rail Passengers Council (RPC), described the proposals as profoundly retrograde. "We are violently against these proposals," he said. "It is another step towards a two-tier railway at a time when we ought to be recognising that these small stations are a core part of the community. It will just continue the demise of the rural railway network instead of encouraging its growth.

"It's part of the old-style thinking we're trying to get rid of. The only reason they could be making this decision is on the grounds of cost."

He urged ministers to ensure that the £60bn of government investment in the railways recently announced by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, is channelled into station facilities as well as rolling stock.

The 25 train operating companies in ATOC have refused to say how many stations could be affected, but it is understood that their plans could leave as many as two-thirds of Britain's 2,500 stations unable to issue a full range of tickets.

Last night, Philip Benham, ATOC's director of commercial services, confirmed that a majority of stations will be in this category, although "many hundred" will continue to issue long distance tickets and allow customers to book in advance.

"What we're trying to do is make it clear for people exactly what sort of ticket they can get where," he said. "Ever since privatisation we have had a situation where some stations sold a full range of tickets, at others it was less clear."

The move, he said, will also allow the train companies to "target their investment" wisely. "There's a cost issue and a question of demand. It doesn't make a bit of sense installing that kind of facility everywhere if it is not going to be used."

The new technology will be brought in with a new, simplified national fare structure that will, in future, have only six types of ticket. ATOC is hoping to re-categorise stations by the beginning of next year.

Already, more than a thousand stations in Britain have been left without any ticket office at all, a situation that has been branded a disgrace by the RPC, but the ATOC proposals would affect hundreds more.

The Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, Don Foster, said: "Any move to make buying rail tickets more difficult will just turn passengers away.

"If John Prescott really means business about getting people out of their cars, he has to make comprehensive through-ticketing a condition in the next round of rail franchises."

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