£1bn subsidy – and '50% fare increases'

PASSENGERS were yesterday promised improved rail services but warned some fares could soar after North-East firm Arriva was unveiled as the next operator of the cross-country network.

PASSENGERS were yesterday promised improved rail services but warned some fares could soar after North-East firm Arriva was unveiled as the next operator of the cross-country network.

Independent watchdog Passenger Focus said some ticket prices could rise by more than 50% during the new Cross Country franchise, which begins in November and could run to 2016.

Sunderland-based Arriva said fares not regulated by the Government – two-thirds of tickets on the network – could rise by 3.4% above inflation every year.

Regulated fares, such as saver tickets and concessions, will rise by 1% above inflation.

The Government will also hand a £1bn subsidy to Arriva to run trains linking Scotland, the North-East, the Midlands and the South-West after it beat current operator Virgin Trains to the franchise.

But Arriva said there would be radical improvements in ticketing and reservation booking, including home printing of tickets and tickets by mobile phone.

David Martin, Arriva’s chief executive, said: “Our proposals and substantial targeted investment will make rail travel more attractive and support growth in passenger numbers by increasing seating capacity.

“Arriva’s new Cross Country operation will support growth in regional travel by rail, help to ease congestion and contribute to improving the UK’s environment.

“With innovations in technology, and expertise which benefits from our existing success in rail operations in the UK and across mainland Europe, we are confident of meeting both rising demand and passengers’ rising expectations for quality of service.”

Discounted tickets will be available much closer to the start of travel, ensuring almost all travellers having lower-cost options.

A refurbished fleet of trains will provide 35% more seating on evening peak services on major routes by June 2009, tackling overcrowding between Newcastle, Bristol and Reading.

At-seat catering will be provided on all routes, along with Wi-Fi access to the internet, which will be free in first class. And train frequency will be maintained in the North-East to current levels, for example with two services south an hour from Newcastle.

Passenger Focus manager Susan Tibbett said extra seating, additional luggage space and making it easier for passengers to change trains should help, but Arriva would have to work hard to boost standards set by Virgin.

“We are pleased that Arriva have published a ballpark figure for possible unregulated fare rises, but this means some prices may rise by more than 50% over the length of the franchise. This makes it all the more important that affordable, off-peak turn up and go fares are protected.”

Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland said: “The improvements in the services are to be welcomed, but it seems at a high price for passengers.”

Arriva said the subsidy reflected the franchise’s inability to cover costs through fares, but was committed to cutting support to almost zero through increasing passenger numbers and improving services.

Virgin Trains said it was disappointed but added it had put together a good bid with Stagecoach and GNER to win the East Coast Main Line contract to be awarded soon.

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