The rail companies have scared their profits away

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Christmas is coming; the trains are getting packed. Please put a penny in the train companies' hat. It seems the railways are going to rely on charity this year, rather than marketing. They have managed to frighten off many of their potential customers with warnings of service cuts, ticket restrictions and limited seat-reservations. As a result, flight bookings are up by 9 per cent, and the train companies say they have plenty of empty seats, even on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is coming; the trains are getting packed. Please put a penny in the train companies' hat. It seems the railways are going to rely on charity this year, rather than marketing. They have managed to frighten off many of their potential customers with warnings of service cuts, ticket restrictions and limited seat-reservations. As a result, flight bookings are up by 9 per cent, and the train companies say they have plenty of empty seats, even on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas period is crucial in that large numbers of people who do not often travel by train take to the railways to stay with relatives or friends. If they are put off by poor service or worse - by being told at the station that the few seats have been sold already - they are unlikely to use the railways during the rest of the year.

It is surprising, therefore, that almost all the rail network will be shut down on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, just as in the bad old days of British Rail. Two services that will not be shutting down are those serving Heathrow and Gatwick airports - surely there is a clue there as to which form of transport is more attuned to passenger needs.

It is extraordinary that supposedly competitive companies still shut down over this holiday, offering restricted services before and afterward, and then manage to scare so many potential "customers" into the arms of commercial rivals. More depressing is the fact that the train companies are now talking about it being up to a year before they win back the customers - or passengers - they have lost over the past two months. Any self-respecting, dynamic company would be cutting prices and improving services - especially over Christmas - to win them back.

The loss of customers is bad for the environment and will delay the return to higher levels of railway traffic that was one of the beneficial effects of privatisation, helping to keep road congestion lower than it would otherwise have been.

Obviously, we need to be sure that the rail network is safe. But Railtrack and the train operators seem to be making heavy weather of the safety work that needs to be carried out after the October Hatfield derailment.

The Prime Minister apparently ducked when invited recently by Steve Marshall, the new chairman of Railtrack, to "instruct" the rail companies to pull out the stops. Tony Blair knew he would take the blame if anything went wrong. But he will get the blame for the "rail chaos" anyway, however unfairly, so he should have cracked the whip. Rail passengers - not customers, please note - are being let down by the train companies, and Mr Blair should use his powers of persuasion to force them to act in their own long-term interests.

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