Protesters are aiming to pile pressure on the Chancellor George Osborne over fare rises being faced by commuters today, warning rail fare increases will be one of the key battlegrounds on which both the London Mayoral Election and the next General Election will be fought unless price hikes are brought under control.
Passenger groups are launching a plan to “flood the Treasury’s phone lines” today with angry rail passengers calling about ticket prices which are set to add hundreds of pounds to the annual cost of commuting.
Figures from a YouGov poll by Campaign for Better Transport suggest that nearly three-quarters of commuters in and around London, which has the most rail passengers in the country, could switch their support away from parties that introduce a rise in the cap on rail fare increases.
Sophie Allain of campaign group said: “Rail fares is a bigger political issue that politicians give it credit for, I think it will be up there with tuition fees and public sector pensions in upcoming elections.”
“Some people are paying more for their commute costs than their mortgages. Some are saying when they add the cost of childcare in, it is not even worth going to work.”
Further demonstrations are planned by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association which is organising a show of strength of feeling at a train station, the identity of which has yet to be unveiled, and on Thursday members of direct action group Climate Rush will refuse to show their tickets at Charing Cross Station.
Commuters returning to work will see their rail fares increased by up to 10.6 per cent. Fares have risen by 6 per cent on average but for some routes the increases are much sharper and have prompted calls for passengers to disrupt the Treasury telephone network.
Among the worst price increases in the country are a 10.6 per cent on the annual season ticket on the Chester to Crewe and the Llandudno to Bangor lines, 9.7 per cent on London to Cardiff off-peak returns, and 9.6 per cent for off-peak returns between London and Exeter and London and Plymouth. Among the biggest rises for anytime returns are 8.4 per cent between Birmingham and Edinburgh and 8.3 per cent between Bristol and Edinburgh.
Figures produced by Passenger Focus last week suggested that some UK rail commuters are already paying almost 10 times more for their season tickets than their European counterparts.
The group said that the price of a 2011 season ticket from Woking in Surrey to London, including Tube travel in the capital, is £3,268. A 22-mile journey from Velletri to Rome costs Italian season ticket holders £336.17.
The group also found that an annual season for the 24-mile journey from Ballancourt-sur-Essonne to Paris costs £924.66. In the French capital, most employers are expected to reimburse 50 per cent of their employees’ travel costs.
Fare increases at the maximum rate allowed – RPI plus three per cent – were originally planned by the Government but the treasury opted to soften the blow at the last minute with Mr Osborne limiting the increase to one per cent over the rate of inflation, which is currently taken to be five per cent.
But the reduction will offer scant relief to commuters in the long term as annual rises of inflation plus three per cent are planned for January 2013 and January 2014.
At that rate the Campaign for Better Transport predict rail fares will rise by 24 per cent by the next General Election.
The group is asking rail passengers to contact the Treasury to complain about price hikes.
“Rail fare regulations were brought in to protect passengers, that policy is being used to increase revenue and has become a tax on people who do the right thing and choose public transport,” said Ms Allain.
“This government has already been forced to back down on fares once before, the argument has traction.”
One person who believes that train fares can be an election issue is former London mayor Ken Livingstone who has made cheaper fares a key plank of his re-election campaign despite having increased fares previously himself.
“Rocketing fares have become such a big issue because fares make up such a big proportion of the rising cost of living for millions of people. It’s clear fares are going to be a major issue at the 2012 London Mayoral election and the next General Election,” he told The Independent.
“For four years Londoners have been forced by Boris Johnson to pay hundreds of pounds a year more to travel by bus, Tube and train. If elected I’ll reverse the Tory Mayor’s fare increases and cut the fares by seven per cent saving Londoners £1000 over four years.
“At a time when millions are feeling the pinch, putting money back into the pockets of people through fare cuts is the right and responsible thing to do.”
Meanwhile Mr Osborne is the target of rail campaigners ire.
“2011 saw the industry’s inefficiencies highlighted in a number of reports. The current policy of moving costs from the taxpayer onto the fare payer will go totally sour if the whole industry and Government does not wring better value for money out of its spending – why should passengers go on paying for a fractured inefficient industry?,” Passenger Focus chief executive, Anthony Smith, said.
The Department for Transport claims increased fares go some way to trying to improve that efficiency with investment in lines.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “We recognise the pressure on family budgets and that’s why we announced that 2012 regulated rail fares will rise by an average of inflation plus 1%, not plus 3% as set out in the Spending Review.
“Revenue from fares is helping to deliver one of the biggest programmes of rail capacity improvements for a hundred years, which will benefit passengers and stimulate economic growth – this includes 2,700 new carriages, a £900m electrification programme and the delivery of major projects like Crossrail.
“Better value for farepayers and taxpayers can only be achieved if the rail industry works together to reduce inefficiency, and we will be publishing our rail reform plans early next year.”
Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, supported his statement.
“Money raised through fares helps to pay for better services,” he said. “For a number of years, the Government has sought to sustain investment in the railways by reducing what taxpayers contribute and increasing the share that is paid for by passengers.
“The focus of the whole industry is to keep on reducing the overall cost of running the railways as a way of limiting future fare rises and providing taxpayers with better value for money.”