Train firms condemned for 'barmy' fare increases

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Train companies are to announce fare increases of up to 4.9 per cent for passengers who have endured the worst disruption in the history of the British network.

Train companies are to announce fare increases of up to 4.9 per cent for passengers who have endured the worst disruption in the history of the British network.

Operators who will introduce substantial price rises in the new year were condemned yesterday by the Rail Passengers' Council and described as "barmy" by the Labour chairwoman of the Commons Transport Select Committee.

Tens of thousands of passengers, hit by severe delays in the months since the Hatfield crash, will now have to pay fare increases above the rate of inflation from 7 January.

Travellers on Silverlink services - which have often taken 45 minutes extra to complete 30-mile trips - will face a 4.3 per cent rise in fares, the highest across-the-board percentage increase on the network.

South West Trains will increase off-peak fares by 4.9 per cent and most other train operating companies are raising ticket prices between 2.3 per cent and 3.3 per cent despite the chaos on the rail network.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, who chairs the transport committee, predicted an outcry over the fare increases. "This is a moment when the network has lost as much as a quarter of its traffic and people are very fed up with the way they have been treated over Christmas. Train operators are going to have to work very hard indeed to get people back.

"They need to think of incentives to lure passengers back. Increasing fares, which are already the highest in Europe, is not very intelligent. But it seems that if companies are so short-sighted there is very little that anyone can do."

Phil Wilkes of the Rail Passengers' Council said: "It is not the time to be pushing up fares, especially as services are not yet back to normal. We take particular issue with companies raising fares above inflation."

Connex is increasing off-peak fares by 3.3 per cent - in line with inflation - but other price changes introduced by the company will vary widely. An annual season ticket between Bromley South and London, for instance, will go down by 29 per cent, but commuters from Hastings will pay 6 per cent more for their tickets.

While Thameslink has chosen to freeze season ticket fares, those who travel off-peak will have to pay up to 4 per cent more. First Great Eastern fares are rising by up to 3.5 per cent and all off-peak prices at Central Trains will increase by the inflation rate of 3.3 per cent. Season tickets at Anglia Railways will increase by 2.3 per cent.

Virgin West Coast, Virgin CrossCountry and Great North Eastern Railways, which have been the main victims of speed restrictions imposed because of Hatfield, have opted to freeze their fares.

While the Strategic Rail Authority sets an upper limit for increases in peak-time fares and season tickets, train operators are free to set "unregulated prices" on most other services at any level they choose.

Operators intending to increase fares argued that they needed the extra money to invest in improved services. Silverlink said its 4.3 per cent increase had been sanctioned by the Strategic Rail Authority. A spokesman for the company said it reflected the "improved performance" that had been achieved in the year up to 1 May.

It came as Railtrack announced that it planned to recruit 700 signallers and 300 engineers next month to speed up work on the rail network, a move welcomed by Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a Transport minister, who insisted "real progress" was being made on the rail network.

Under the authority's rules, train operators are allowed to increase regulated fares - largely covering peak-time journeys and season tickets - by one percentage point below the 3.3 per cent inflation rate.