Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, stirred up a political row by blaming British Rail for the 56 per cent fares increase imposed on a group of commuters in south-west England.
In a statement issued yesterday, Sir George also said that it was the type of problem which privatisation was designed to solve, but his remarks were immediately dismissed as "ludicrous" by Labour.
The increase was imposed by the Regional Railways South Wales and West train company for early-morning travellers between Exmouth and Paignton in Devon and came to light following a complaint by the father of 13-year- old schoolboy, Steven Silverman.
John Silverman found that the seven-week season ticket for his son to travel the seven miles to Torre station, Torquay, to go to school had risen from pounds 38.25 to pounds 59.60
A letter from South Wales and West to Mr Silverman said that the price changes were made because of an "extreme demand situation". Apparently 250 people, mainly local students, have being trying to cram on to the 150-seater 7.20am train and the return at 4.12pm was also very overcrowded.
The rail company says it does not have the additional rolling stock to increase the length of the train. According to Sean O'Neill, the secretary of the local passenger watchdog, Rail-Users Consultative Committee: "The rail company has already replaced half the services between Avonmouth and Severn Beach with a bus because they've moved one of the two trains on to another route."
Mr O'Neill also complained: "There is supposed to be a statutory duty for them to inform us but the system has not worked since the reorganisation of the railways in 1994," he said.
Mike Patterson, of the central CRUCC watchdog body, said: "We see this as a negative reaction to a particularly localised overcrowding problem. There could be, potentially, repercussions elsewhere if other train operating companies follow the same principle."
A BR source blamed privatisation: "Before the break-up of the railways in April 1994, there was spare stock but now it is too expensive for operators to keep it."
Rolling stock now has to be leased and an extra coach would cost around pounds 100,000 per year, with total costs including fuel and wages of around pounds 250,000.
Sir George also claimed that from next year such high increases could not happen because of the fares cap under introduced. "The Franchising Director has announced that for three years from January 1996 operators will not be able to increase key fares," he said.
Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, said: "Long-term season tickets are not included in the fares cap and in any case it is the overall basket of fares that will be controlled and not individual ones."
Eryl Jones, spokesman for South Wales and West, said that the increase on the Exmouth to Paignton line was unique: "Overall, our fares went up in May by just under the national inflation rate. And several fares have gone down."Reuse content