Commuters face New Year fares shock

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Rail commuters already facing increased annual fare rises from January 2012 could find season tickets rocketing this winter as well, it was revealed today.

Regulated fares, which include season tickets, are set to rise by 5.8% in January 2011.

But some regulated fares could go up by as much as 10.8% in the new year as train companies have been give the go-ahead by the Government to make the 5.8% figure only an AVERAGE increase.

Companies have a "5% flexibility" which means they can raise some fares by as much as 5% above the capped figure (which is 5.8% in January 2011) as long as all the regulated fares average out at 5.8%.

Labour scrapped the 5% flexibility for the set of fares that were introduced in January this year, ensuring that there was no average figure and that all regulated fare rises were the same.

But the Department for Transport (DfT) has gone back to the old flexibility rule, saying the loss of flexibility was operationally and affordably unsustainable.

The decision has alarmed rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, whose chief executive Anthony Smith said today: "In the past, train companies have used the fares basket flexibility to impose increases of more than 10% on some routes.

"Passengers will wait anxiously to see if this freedom is used by operators just to get rid of 'anomalies' or whether some will face rises of more than double the rate of inflation."

The DfT said: "The decision to remove the 5% flexibility for 2010 was made by the previous Government. It was only removed for the fares year starting January 2010 to address the particular circumstances at the time.

"This loss of flexibility is unsustainable in both operational and affordability terms in the medium to long term."

The Association of Train Operating Companies said that any fare increased by more than 5.8% in January 2011 "must be balanced by another fare reducing by the same amount".

It went on: "The use of flex means that some fares will go up by less than 1%. Importantly, the average is weighted so that operators cannot increase fares on routes with lots of passengers, and likewise reduce them on routes with fewer passengers.

"It is not in train companies' interests to price people off the railways. They are looking to attract ever greater numbers of passengers, which is why they offer a range of fares to suit every pocket, including hundreds of thousands of cheap Advance tickets every week."

The 5.8% figure for January 2011 is based on the current regulated fares annual increase cap of RPI inflation plus 1%, based on the RPI figure for the previous July.

Last week the Government announced that from January 2012, the regulated fares cap will be changing to RPI plus 3%.