Virgin backs down over walk-on fares

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The Independent Online
Virgin Trains, tried last month to abolish its cheapest walk-on fares. But opposition from passenger groups and industry regulators has forced management to think again.

The company, which is owned by Richard Branson, planned to withdraw its cheap Super Saver tickets in January. The proposals - revealed exclusively by The Independent - would have meant passengers paying up to 37 per cent more to travel using the cheapest "walk-on" tickets.

Super Saver tickets, which can be used on any day except Fridays and summer Saturdays, were not protected by legislation, and rail campaigners have predicted they would be the first fares to go.

Chris Tibbits, the managing director of Virgin Trains, wrote to "interested parties" last month, saying the company was "undertaking a major restructuring of West Coast leisure fares".

However, Virgin confirmed yesterday it had abandoned the proposals. "We have listened to various parties and because of the constructive feedback we received, we are going to keep the Super Saver," said Brian Barrett, chief executive of Virgin Trains. Mr Barrett, however, added that the decision "would be reviewed in the future".

Instead Super Saver fares will rise between 3 and 10 per cent. Directors had not counted on the storm of protest they encountered. "We have always maintained that walk-on capacity must be maintained," said Paul Burroughs, assistant secretary of the Rail Users' Consultative Committee for North Western England.

The rail regulator, John Swift QC, also made it clear that he "understands the concern ... that the withdrawal of tickets such as Super Savers may erode the attractiveness of rail as a flexible, reasonably-priced option for longer-distance travel".

The proposals would have made "turn-up-and-go" train travel more expensive. The cheapest "walk-on" fare from London to Manchester is now pounds 36. From next year, passengers would have had to pay pounds 46.50 - a 29 per cent rise.

The most severe criticism came from the office of passenger rail franchising.Rail campaigners gave the decision a cautious welcome. "We do not know if Virgin will increase the fares later or add more restrictions on when they can be used," said Jonathan Bray, director of Save Our Railways.