A meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts yesterday quizzed rail heads over the controversial upgrade of the West Coast Main Line service (WCML), but questions quickly turned to ticketing across the network.
The meeting started badly for Dr Mike Mitchell, the Department for Transport's (DfT) head of rail. He suggested that there was extra passenger capacity on off-peak rather than peak journeys. Conserviative chair Edward Leigh MP derided Dr Mitchell for stating the obvious.Dr Mitchell said that the wild overruns for WCML - rising from £2bn at project inception to £13bn in 2002 under Railtrack - could no longer happen, adding: 'It is quite clear that a project should be well specified right at the beginning.' He promised a 'more robust approach for Thameslink'.The Committee also found that the environmental impact for WCML was negative and did not factor-in the environmental savings made by people moving from air and road to rail. It asked Dr Mitchell to factor-in these environmental savings in the future.However, the most contentious points came not from the WCML project, but from the ticketing policy across the network. Labour MP Austin Mitchell described rail fares as, 'scandalously overpriced', while Conservative MP Richard Bacon queried the concept of competition when there are single operators on mainline routes. 'There is no interest from the top in giving people the cheapest fare,' he said.Dr Mitchell said: 'Railways have not been good in the past at publicising their cheapest fares.' However, he was adamant that cheap fares were available. Chair Edward Leigh ended by asking Stuart Baker, the DfT's divisional manager for national rail projects, to find out what proportion of passengers are offered cheap fares on the day they travel.