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Wrong kind of price rises; You've suffered late trains, cancelled trains and now you are facing hefty fare increases. You should be outraged, says Ros Dodd.

Just supposing you were a Midland commuter who had taken John Prescott's fine words to heart and decided to leave your car in the garage and take the train to work instead.

How would you feel now?

Well and truly derailed, most probably. For you would have discovered fairly early on that your new mode of travel was less than reliable. Often trains were late; sometimes they simply didn't run at all.

You might have made inquiries as to why this was the case. If so, you would have been forced to listen to a variety of excuses - one of the more bizarre being the prevalence of more and "juicier" leaves than usual on the line.

Why can't these autumn leaves be shifted? You might understandably have asked.

"Well, you see, it's like this," a Railtrack representative may well have informed you in sombre tones. "In this region we don't have the right kind of electricity to run the 'leaf buster' trains that blast compressed leaves off lines with high-powered w ater jets."

Although rendered speechless at the absurdity of this riposte, you may have decided, nonetheless, to continue to shun your trusty motor vehicle in favour of Richard Branson's Virgin Trains services on the basis that the journey to and from work is cheape r by rail.

Today, however, you will surely be kicking yourself for taking notice of the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortations to free up the traffic-jammed roads and motorways. For now you are facing hefty price rises too. If you travel on Virgin's West Coast Main L ine trains on ofeak, open or first-class tickets, you are going to have to fork out an extra 19 per cent in the New Year.

If you're a standard-fare passenger, the news is only slightly less gloomy: you face a price rise of 14 per cent - also well above the rate of inflation.

It could be worse, of course: the cost of a first-class open return between Kettering and Sheffield, a service run by Midland Mainline, is about to shoot up by a staggering 26 per cent.

Transport Minister John Reid predicts rail passengers will feel "angry and disappointed" at the price rises. Outraged and disgusted would be a more accurate description.

With Britain's privatised rail service in such disarray, they will demand to know how train companies can possibly justify hiking up fares?

Brian Donohoe, a Labour member of the Commons transport committee, is of the same opinion. "Until such time as the train companies demonstrate the ability to deliver a service that is punctual and of a reasonable quality, there is no justification whatso ever for fare increases," he commented.

By pushing up the price of tickets so dramatically the rail companies are adding insult to injury.

Passengers already have to put up with overcrowding, unreliability, lack of information on delays, cancellations and dirty carriages - to name but a few gripes.

Now they are going to have to pay even more - and train travel is hardly cheap as it is - for what, in some cases, is the worst service since the demise of British Rail.

One might think the likes of Virgin, which tops the complaints league, would have more sense than to further alienate its customers.

This, though, is expecting too much from a company which persists in claiming improvements are just around a bend in the track but has so far failed to deliver the goods.

Only last August it was revealed that Virgin was still not meeting performance targets - more than 18 months after taking over the West Coast Main Line.

The announcement by the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee followed an exclusive report by The Birmingham Post which showed that complaints about late and dirty trains in the Midlands had rocketed by 200 per cent in the previous five months and we re poised to hit a new record by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, figures for the most recent performance period show that Central Trains services have fallen to an alime low, in October recording the worst figures in rail travel since privatisation.

While the Government appears to be genuinely concerned about the state of the railways - only last week Mr Prescott held a head-to-head summit with rail bosses following rising customer dissatisfaction with train services - promised improvements are cons picuous by their absence.

But it doesn't stop politicians from spouting on about how they are monitoring the situation closely and how things will get better, honest.

Speaking to GMTV's The Sunday Programme yesterday, Mr Reid said the issue of ticket price rises was one reason why his department was launching a nationwide rail passenger survey, incorporating all train companies.

This would be part of a performance regime, in addition to calls for increased rolling stock and train drivers and a summit involving passengers to be held in February.

Rail companies have just agreed to bring in, over the next 12 months, 800 new drivers along with 500 new vehicles, of which a third would be locomotives.

However, in the short term at least, this is likely to cause even more problems on the railways. Mr Reid warned that with the investment, disruption on the rail lines had to be expected.

This, presumably, will add to the disruption caused by too many leaves - and soggy ones at that - and the "wrong kind of snow" on the line.

Is it any wonder, then, that Mr Prescott's much-heralded integrated transport system failed to make an appearance in the Queen's Speech last week?

It is all very well for the Government to keep banging on about the need to "let the train take the strain" in order to ease the congestion on the roads, but how can it seriously expect people to abandon their cars when the railways are in such an appall ing state?

There is every reason for a country like Britain to boast one of the most efficient and up-to-date rail services in the world, yet we lag behind countries which are far less cash-rich.

The time has come for the Government to act swiftly and effectively. If it doesn't, there will be little point in trying to salvage the country's rail service - because the trains, on time or otherwise, will be running empty.
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Author:Dodd, Ros
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 30, 1998
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