High speed rail network ‘could slash prices for train tickets’

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A HIGH-speed rail network could cut the cost of train tickets, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said yesterday as he rejected claims by critics that many people will be priced out of using the fast route to Yorkshire.

Mr Hammond told the Yorkshire Post he expects some “fantastically good deals” to be available on the route, which could cut 50 minutes off journey times from London to Leeds and South Yorkshire by the mid-2030s.

He is seeking to challenge criticism of the plans by opponents who have been staging a vocal campaign against the first phase of the route, which will go from London to Birmingham before two legs are built – one to the East Midlands, South Yorkshire and Leeds, and the other to Manchester. A four-month consultation is under way before the Government plans to introduce legislation for the project.

Mr Hammond said the network could introduce an extra 250,000 seats in and out of London every day, which will force operators to offer good deals as they seek to fill trains. He likened the situation to the fall in plane fares when new competition was introduced.

“What we expect train operators to do is seek to fill their trains by attracting marginal passengers who currently wouldn’t be travelling by rail with very attractive fares in the off-peak,” said Mr Hammond.

“For the person who’s able to travel in the mid- to late morning or the afternoon or later in the evening when there isn’t so much demand I would expect they will be able to get some fantastically good deals on High Speed Two.”

Mr Hammond is seeking to go on the offensive to sell the high-speed project amid concern about the noise being generated by protesters opposed to the impact of the line through the Chilterns.

When the full network is complete, journeys from London to Leeds could be cut to 80 minutes and from the capital to South Yorkshire to even less, a move which could be worth billions to the region’s economy. Trips from Leeds to Sheffield would be halved from 40 minutes to 20, and business leaders warn it is essential to the region’s future economic health.

Sixty nine business leaders recently wrote a letter backing the line, but there has also been a letter questioning the economic case and branding the scheme an expensive “white elephant”. On Friday the Transport Select Committee announced it would be carrying out an inquiry into the project.

Mr Hammond is convinced passengers will benefit from lower costs because of the massive increase in the number of seats available.

At the moment, there are 82,000 seats each way between Birmingham and London on the West Coast Main Line and Chiltern Lines, but that will increase to 250,000 each way when the first phase of the High Speed network opens – a 200 per cent increase in capacity.

Detailed figures have not yet been calculated for the number of seats on the legs to Manchester and Leeds, but the Government expects a similarly dramatic increase.

Transport officials say that a 40 per cent increase in flights from UK airports between 1997 and 2008 through the boom in budget airlines saw the average UK one-way air fare halve in price.

Mr Hammond admitted that fares for passengers turning up at stations without a ticket in peak times were likely to be expensive, but would be far more appealing to those who can buy in advance or travel at less popular times.

His comments aim to counter claims by opponents of the project that tickets will be so expensive – to recoup the cost – that they will be unaffordable to many.