Regional rail network operator bucks trend by pegging fares for 20 years

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Rail fares paid by tens of thousands of passengers in one part of Britain will not rise in real terms for the next 20 years, at a time when travellers in the rest of the country face big increases, it was announced today.

As part of a deal with an Anglo-Dutch consortium, tickets on Merseyrail Electric will be pegged to the retail price index. The agreement between the Merseyside transport authority, Serco, a British company, and NedRailways, the state rail organisation in the Netherlands, contrasts with the policy of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) in the rest of the United Kingdom where a wide range of protected fares are to increase by 1 per cent above the inflation rate next January.

The price of "Saver" tickets on long-distance routes - off-peak fares which do not have to be bought ahead of time - could increase by up to 20 per cent elsewhere in Britain.

The price "freeze" on the 80-mile network in north-west England has been made possible because the regional transport authority Merseytravel has taken over the responsibilities of the SRA in the area. The contract to run the trains in the Liverpool area is the longest in Britain.

Neil Scales, chief executive of Merseytravel, said his organisation was the first to take over responsibilities of the SRA in an area of Britain. He pointed out that the fares protected on Merseyrail Electric included peak and off-peak tickets, single and return journeys.

As part of the long-term deal the train operator, which took over from Arriva, must increase the number of trains arriving within five minutes from the current 92 per cent to 93.5 per cent within seven years. The record of punctuality in the region is already one of the best in the country.

A new passenger charter is to be introduced and the operator has guaranteed that conductors will patrol trains after 7pm within two years. Convenience stores are to be introduced at stations.

Mr Scales said his organisation would review the operators' performance after the sixth year of the agreement and then every five years to decide whether the contract should continue.

Mr Scales said the arrangement would also mean that any penalties for poor performance would be used for improvements to the local network, rather than be sent to the Treasury as at present.

Mr Scales said: "We will ensure that the new operator is rewarded if performance exceeds targets, while poor performance will see the operator having to invest additional money into the local network."

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