Train operators forced to lower rush-hour fares

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The Independent Online

Rush-hour commuters in London and the South-east will pay lower fares next year after train companies failed to meet performance targets.

While the 1.4 per cent reduction announced yesterday is modest and will apply only to standard fares and season tickets, it is the first time the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) has ordered an across-the-board absolute drop in prices and follows high levels of delays and cancellations. The authority announced that regulated fare increases at long-distance and regional companies would continue to be held to inflation minus 1 per cent.

In a separate announcement, the SRA also confirmed that most train companies' punctuality deteriorated during the summer. Analysis for the SRA showed that despite the worst disruption experienced in peace-time, a consequence of last October's Hatfield disaster, price rises nationally in the year to March were higher than the inflation rate.

There was an increase of 3.09 per cent in the average standard class fare, compared with an inflation rate of 3 per cent. Between 1995-96 and 2000-01, the cumulative rise in the fares was 15.34 per cent, compared with an inflation rate of 14.2 per cent.

Barry Doe, an independent travel consultant, suggested south-east operators would increase off-peak and first-class fares, which are not regulated by the authority, to compensate for reduced rush-hour and season tickets prices, which are subject to SRA control. Mr Doe said that would encourage people to travel at peak times.

Philip Benham, director of commercial services at the Association of Train Operating Companies, argued that the moves by the SRA constituted good news for passengers "who have been understandably frustrated with the state of the service in the aftermath of the Hatfield accident".

He said that many operators were already providing discounts of between 5 and 10 per cent under their passenger charter commitments. The exception to the average 1.4 per cent reduction in fares for south-east commuters is on south London services within the South Central franchise, where the reduction will average 1.1 per cent.

The companies involved in the 1.4 per cent reduction are c2c (London to Southend), Chiltern, First Great Eastern, Connex South Eastern, South Central (except for South London services), South West Trains, Thames Trains, Thameslink and West Anglia Great Northern.

Passengers using First Great Western services experienced the worst slump in standards, with only 56.3 per cent of trains arriving on time in July compared with 67.9 per cent in June. Commuters travelling between Bristol and London are leading calls for a boycott of the national network on 9 October. Thames Trains was second worst with 73.8 per cent of services arriving to schedule in July compared with 81.6 per cent in June.

The only companies with improved punctuality in July, compared with June, were Midland Mainline, Anglia (Intercity services), Virgin West Coast, First Great Eastern, Thameslink and Arriva Trains Northern.In the year to March 2001, operators paid the SRA £100m in performance penalties.