Leading article: A shabby system of fares and franchises

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Despairing noises about the state of Britain's railways have become a truism - how expensive and overcrowded the trains are, how shabby they appear in comparison to their gleaming counterparts that most of us have taken at one time or other, speeding across Normandy to Paris or rocketing through the Midi down to Marseilles.

If anyone ever expected New Labour to introduce a comparable level of service to the UK, dream on. As yesterday's report by the Commons Transport Committee pointed out, the railways are as much a shambles now as ever they were in the darkest days after privatisation, with fares coming under scrutiny for a greedy and quixotic pricing mechanism.

Ticket buying has become a lottery. Almost everybody has experience of the vastly different prices extorted for exactly the same journey, according not only to when the hapless traveller applies to buy the ticket but to the expected capacity of the train. Buy early for unpopular routes, and pay relatively little; buy on popular routes - obviously the ones most people need to use - and dig deep in your pockets.

It is disengenious of the Rail Minister, Derek Twigg, to say that the Government is urging rail companies to simplify the pricing system, as if their pious moans from the sidelines will have some effect, and the Government were not part of the problem.

It is. The problem at the heart of the prices racket is the franchise system. Unlike the French, who view railways as a public service, the British government wants it both ways. It wants to sell rail franchises to the highest bidders according to the purest free-market criteria, but at the same time expects those companies to behave according to codes of public service that are foreign to them.

The Government needs to stop treating the railways as a cash cow to be milked for the benefit of the Treasury. It must no longer sell off franchises to the highest corporate bidders who then squeeze as much money as impossible from the travelling public. It should instead offer franchises to companies whose priority is the provision of a top-quality service.

This would mean injecting more public money. No one seriously expects a British government to subsidise the railways to the same extent as munificent France. But it has no excuse to feign shock over a pricing system that is a result of its own policies.

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