THOUSANDS of Merseyside commuters are travelling to work under a new train operator this morning.
The Anglo-Dutch consortium Serco/Nedrail took over from Arriva Trains Merseyside at 2am yesterday.
And there was immediate good news for passengers as it was revealed that fares increases are to be limited to inflation for the next 25 years.
It means overall prices will effectively be frozen in real terms for the course of the new contract.
Although fares on some routes can go up by the Retail Price Index plus 2pc the overall effect has to be neutral.
Around 30 million passengers use Merseyrail's services each year. Their deal will be an improvement on the one introduced for the rest of the country's regulated fares from January 2004 which will see tickets going up by an average of inflation plus 1pc.
The deal was struck by passenger transport authority Merseytravel which has now taken over direct control of Merseyrail from the Strategic Rail Authority.
Chief executive Neil Scales said: "Overall the price rises must be at RPI or lower and that is really important.
"It is something we have done with the 15pc of the bus network which we control, something we've done with the ferries and is exactly what would happen with the Mersey tunnels if we succeed in getting the Tunnels Bill through. It means people know where they stand."
The new start brings with it a concerted campaign to clamp down on anti-social behaviour on trains.
The 59-strong Merseyrail fleet of trains is currently being refurbished in an 18-month programme costing £32m.
Each carriage is being equipped with two CCTV cameras which can produce images up to court stand-ards if needed.
Mr Scales, who chairs the Travel-safe board, said: "We are determined to stamp out anti-social behaviour on public transport. We are aiming to create a public transport system that offers everyone the opportunity to travel safely and without fear."
The problem of intimidating teenage gangs gathering at Merseyrail stations is to be tackled with new gated entrances.
Mr Scales said: "We are looking to gate the stations, starting with the five in the city centre and Southport, so that only people with tickets will be able to get into the stations.
"We're also working closely with British Transport Police and other partners on other measures.
"If people are spat at, we will have DNA testing kits which will allow us to identity the gang who did it."
Additional powers of detention for security staff and the return of conductors patrolling late-night trains within 18 months have already been announced. A programme of station renovations will also be undertaken, starting with a £4m scheme at Sandhills, regarded as a gateway to the city.
Ironically the change to a new operator comes at a time when Arriva Trains Merseyside has been identified as the country's best train operator in the latest Strategic Rail Authority figures.
But Mr Scales denied that Arriva had been replaced too quickly.
He said: "We can only take the decision on the evidence available at the time.
"Arriva's bid did not come up to the mark. It was a joint decision by the SRA, the Department of Transport and Merseytravel."
The new man in charge of Merseyrail is Dutchman Patrick Verwer and he is not concerned about taking over a network, which, despite perceptions, is currently performing well.
Mr Verwer said: "If the network was performing badly, it would be very difficult for us to change in the short term.
"There is plenty to be done and we are confident we can make it perform better. What we want to do is create stability and reliability.
"My aim is to provide a rail service that the people of Liverpool can be proud of.
"This is a great city with an exciting future and we aim to play an integral role in assisting Liverpool to meet its regeneration objectives."
The new operator will be rewarded with bonuses if performance exceeds targets, but poor performance will provoke fines which will be reinvested in the rail network. The most visible signs of change this week should be the new uniforms worn by Merseyrail staff.
Around 1,000 have been designed, manufactured and delivered within a three-month period, which the new operator says is an example of its "can-do" approach.
But cosmetic changes will matter little to customers if a better service does not materialise.
Coun Mark Dowd, chairman of Merseytravel, said "We want to see big improvements in stations, security and on trains.
"Everyone involved in the railways on Merseyside can now look forward to 25 years of investment and improvement and that is good news for passengers and staff alike."