Leading article: Right track, wrong speed

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The Independent Online

It is impossible not to welcome the principle of a simpler rail fare system, the first stage of which was introduced yesterday. Since privatisation, the system of charges has been a hopeless mess with little consistency across operators. It has been bedevilled by confusing jargon such as "Super Saver" and "Value Advance", dreamed up by the marketing departments of various franchises. There has also been little apparent logic underpinning prices.

The message on booking websites warning customers that it may be cheaper for them to buy two single tickets, rather than a return, stands as testament to just how downright confusing the system has grown. Anyone who uses the trains, or would like to do so more, will welcome a more straightforward system and greater transparency on prices.

This is not merely good for passengers, but the environment too. The train is, by some distance, the most environmentally friendly means of transportation available. If train travel is to keep pace with, and in time overhaul, the growth of domestic plane and car travel, it will require a fare system that people can have confidence in and understand.

But by the same token, it is impossible to welcome the way several of the franchise operators have gone about implementing this necessary reform. They appear to have used the opportunity to get rid of many of their cheaper fares. To take just two egregious examples, Virgin's Holyhead to Euston service will henceforth triple in price and passengers using National Express's Colchester toLondon service will face a 63 per cent hike. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the train operators are up to their old tricks.

Last week, the transport union TSSA revealed that the low fare rates advertised by National Express for travel between London and Glasgow in July were nigh on impossible to get hold of. And during the Christmas disruption on the west coast main line, the train operators made no attempt to alleviate passengers' misery by allowing them to transfer tickets for travel on to each others' services. This is not a sector with a record of putting its customers first.

Rail operators are not the only ones to blame, of course. The Government plans to reduce the subsidy to the rail system, despite the fact that rising demand for train travel means additional infrastructure funding is badly needed. Instead, ministers are allowing the rail companies to constrain demand by raising fare prices. This is strategic madness and a guaranteed way to increase carbon emissions.

A simplified fare structure is a start. But it will require a good deal more reform and investment before our rail service will be worthy of the name.