UK rail fares highest in Europe, and rising

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The Independent Online

Rail fares in Britain are the highest in Europe, with passengers getting fewer and fewer miles for their money, new research reveals.

Just days ahead of an announcement by the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, expected to herald an inflation-busting 4 per cent rise in fares from next January, it has emerged that Britons already pay the highest fares in Europe.

Mr Darling, determined to bail out the loss-making Network Rail, is set to put up fares again even though they have risen by 8 per cent since Labour took office.

Research carried out by the Liberal Democrats shows that £10 will take passengers just 42 miles on the UK railway system. For the same money they could travel more than three times as far in Spain and four times as far in Italy.

The cost of travel per mile in the UK is 1.7 times higher than in France, Finland and Austria, 2.2 times higher than in Sweden and Belgium, more than four times higher than in Poland and five-and-a-half times the cost in the Czech Republic.

And prices - adjusted for inflation - have consistently gone up. In 1979, £10 would have taken passengers 63 miles, suggesting a rise of more than a third. In 1997, £10 would have allowed a passenger to travel four miles more than it does now.

Don Foster, Lib Dem transport spokesman, said: "Rail passengers need and deserve a safe, reliable and affordable railway. But our rail fares are becoming more and more costly every year. Further fare increases will do nothing to persuade motorists to get out of their cars and cut congestion."

Mr Darling is to make his announcement on fares before the end of this month. He has indicated that fares will not be capped, and sources have signalled an increase of 4 per centto ease Network Rail's financial problems.

The not-for-profit company set up to replace Railtrack recently reported pre-tax losses of £290m plus a rise in train delays of 9 per cent and debts of £9.4bn.

Network Rail blamed its losses on the soaring costs of maintaining 20,000 miles of track, 1,100 signal boxes and 40,000 bridges and tunnels. Losses increased by a third to £3.7bn.

Now Network Rail is looking to Mr Darling for help. He is already under scrutiny after the Government downsized the Transport Secretary's job to a part-time role. Critics say transport deserves the full attention of a Cabinet minister.

Rising rail fares, the brunt of which may be targeted at the South-east under one option being considered, are expected to be accompanied by increased restrictions on some journeys.

Though the rail companies argue that they offer more lower fares than were available under the public railway system, campaigners for cheaper travel insist that some reduced fare tickets, such as the Super Saver, have already been scrapped by most companies. They claim that the replacement Saver ticket is much more restricted.

And there are fears that grants to train operating companies will be cut.

"Train passengers are likely to see increased fares but no service improvements," Mr Foster said. He added that nothing had been done to raise the cost of motoring to get cars off the roads and ease pollution. Since 1979, the cost of motoring has actually fallen by 5 per cent.