Rail passengers have reacted with anger as ticket price rises of more than 10 per cent came into force while, at the same time, many faced delays and cancellations caused by problems rail bosses admitted will continue to the weekend.
And, even as the above-inflation fare hikes began to hit already squeezed commuters, Rail minister Norman Baker risked angering passengers further, insisting that tickets are “not nearly as expensive as is being presented”.
His clams came despite what campaigners said was the tenth consecutive year of price rises and analysis printed in The Independent which showed England’s network to be Europe’s most expensive mile-for-mile. And some passengers said yesterday that they were worried that the continued fare hikes would prevent them from making essential journeys.
“If the price carries on increasing, then that has to be added to the cost of coming into London. My autistic son regularly has to attend a London hospital at appointed times, so we have no choice as to when we can come into the city. That makes it expensive,” said 66-year-old Susan Reid.
Others expressed anger that unavoidable journeys to work and to university would be hit by the price rises. Speaking outside London’s St Pancras International station today, 34-year-old Ian Potter said: “They are bastards for putting the prices up, it is bloody annoying. I travel from Rye in East Sussex into London for work. The high speed line is particularly bad; the line from Ashford into the capital is ok, but it takes so long to get from Rye to Ashford, it is not worth the prices they charge.
“The rail ticket prices can be prohibitive at times and they contribute to the increases in house prices because the limit the areas you can live in. Price rises are one thing but the service is just ridiculous. In the mornings, there is one train an hour from Rye to London.”
And Hannah McDonald from Canterbury in Kent, who is 19-years-old and studies in Glasgow, said: “The increase in price is not good for me as a student. I have to travel between Kent and Glasgow quite often, which is quite expensive and I don’t have a lot of money to spare.”
Rail firms are allowed to raise the prices of individual regulated tickets as much as they like, as long as the average price rise across the range of their services is no greater than inflation plus one per cent (4.2 per cent). This means that - while some prices may rise only slightly, stay the same or even fall – others will jump by much more than the cap.
A political row erupted yesterday as Labour accused David Cameron of breaking his promise to cap increases at the inflation plus one per cent figure. Although the same formula will be used again in a year’s time, the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister Norman Baker said the government wanted to see an end to above-inflation price rises “as quickly as we can”.
But he insisted that the current round of price hikes was not as bad as was being suggested, “once you take the basket of fares, include early advance and off peaks”. And he said the Government had intervened to help hard-working families by scaling down the rise from three per cent to one per cent on top of inflation.
Mr Baker said: “In the longer term we are determined to reduce the cost of running the railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises.”
Mr Baker admitted: “In an ideal world we wouldn’t be having fare increases above inflation.” But he insisted: “We are engaged in the biggest rail investment programme since the 19th century and it is only right that the passenger, as well as the taxpayer, contributes towards that.”
But Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport Secretary, claimed the Government had “caved into pressure” from the train operators. “If David Cameron said fare rises shouldn’t be more than one per cent above inflation, then why are some people finding their fares have gone up by nine per cent?” she asked. “Labour would make that cap a reality. It would be a cap [on all routes], not just an average.”
Ms Eagle warned that Government plans for even higher “super-peak time” fares would penalise people who had to travel by train to get to work. She declined to commit Labour to avoiding inflation-plus rises if it wins the 2015 election, saying the party would spell out whether fares would rise nearer the time.
Some Greater Anglia services were cancelled yesterday, while Heathrow Express services were delayed and Gatwick Express trains were held up by a signal fault at Victoria station. And over-running engineering work affected services at Cannon Street station in London and caused delays in Hampshire, Devon and Cumbria.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “At a time when real wages are falling and household budgets are being squeezed, rail travellers are being forced to endure yet another year of inflation-busting fare increases. They are being asked to pay much more for less.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Passenger Focus, said: “For some passengers returning to work after enjoying Christmas, the above-inflation fare increases due on January 2 will add to the post-holiday blues.
“While train operators have shown some restraint in increasing season-ticket prices less than they could have, it’s disappointing that this doesn’t extend to other fare types such as Off-peak and Anytime singles or returns. In the current economic climate, already hard-pressed passengers will feel the pinch with this. We recommend that season-ticket holders check now and buy their tickets at the 2012 price, if it’s cheaper, while they still can.”
One commuter today said that she has had to take out a loan from her employer to pay for her season ticket. Sophia Abdullah, 22, lives in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, which rose 4.2 per cent from £4,512 to £4,700.
She said: “It’s not that far to Harpenden but unfortunately I just can’t afford to live in London.
“The only way I could do it is that my employer agreed to give me a season ticket loan, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
“There are a lot of delays. One day before Christmas It took me four hours to get to work,
“For the price they could at least put wi-fi in but they don’t have anything like that . It’s because they know people have to pay it.”