Virgin rail accused of abusing its monopoly

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The Independent Online

Rail passenger groups demanded Government action yesterday to stop Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains "abusing" its monopoly on the West Coast Main Line between London and the North-west.

Passengers have been exploited by "extraordinary" fare rises of up to 70 per cent since Virgin won the franchise four years ago, passengers' representatives complained.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the North-west Rail Passengers' Committee, said an ordinary "walk-on" return fare from London to Manchester now cost £164.50, while a first class return cost £252.50.

Mr O'Friel said that some increases had been up to 60 per cent higher than inflation in the past four years. "We think this is completely unjustified. Many passengers are seriously disadvantaged by this piece of exploitation," he said.

Price rises would be far more acceptable if new trains had been introduced, Mr O'Friel said. "But actually last year we had a dreadful time from trains – one of the worse since the war – and, on top of that, Virgin put up the fares last May by 10 per cent," he said.

He acknowledged that the company had frozen fares for the year to next May, but he said that was prompted by protests and warned there would be fresh attempts to put up prices after that.

Mr O'Friel called on the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to investigate Virgin's pricing policy: "The danger of passengers being exploited by monopoly power remains. If current legislation is inadequate to allow passengers to be protected from such exploitation, then the law is in urgent need of changing."

But he argued that legislation already existed to deal with the situation. "Virgin has exploited its monopoly and we believe, therefore, that something should be done – either by freezing or instructing that its fares should be reduced."

A spokesman for the SRA said the prices in question were not regulated. "They are a matter for Virgin," said a spokesman.

A Virgin spokesman said passengers on the London to Manchester services could buy cheaper tickets, including the "saver" return which was available on trains leaving after 10.05am and cost £49.90. The cheapest pre-booked off-peak fare was £20, although there was an unspecified quota per train. "There are plenty of cheap tickets out there if you book in advance. These are affordable fares," added the spokesman.

The first of three new fleets of trains was currently being delivered and Virgin's Voyager trains had started running between Manchester and Brighton, he said. "The new trains are extremely reliable and introduce new features that our customers like. Virgin Trains is currently investing £2bn in new trains for both CrossCountry and West Coast."

Virgin was among a number of companies that had been forced to cancel services because of driver shortages. However, the company said the problems had been caused by drivers being taken off work to be trained on new locomotives.