Minister keeps options open on rail fares

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Commuters could have to pay significantly more for their rail tickets next year after the Government failed to rule out higher-than-usual fare increases, it emerged.

Under the current pricing system, the cost of tickets go up by 1% more than the July retail price index - a measure of inflation.

Last month's RPI, which will be announced tomorrow, is expected to be around 5.1%, the Daily Telegraph reported.

With the rail price model in place, a 6.1% rise for a commuter from Brighton to London would mean they would have to pay £216 more than the £3,556 they are currently charged each year, according to the paper.

But no decision was yet taken on whether the "RPI plus 1%" formula will be changed as part of the Spending Review in the autumn.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "It would normally be the case that next year's regulated train fares are calculated using July's inflation figure, plus 1%.

"These figures are due to be published shortly.

"But this is not a normal year. The scale of the financial crisis that we have inherited means that we will have to make some tough decisions in the spending review which concludes this autumn.

"I am therefore not yet in a position to determine next year's fare increase.

"It would be irresponsible, at a time when investment in the railway is under pressure, to rule anything out until the spending review is concluded."

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said predictions of rail fare rises were "just speculation".

"The Government is currently reviewing its approach to rail fares and a final decision is unlikely to be made until the spending review in the autumn," he said.

"The average price paid for a single journey comes in at under five pounds and we will have to wait and see how this changes."

Gerry Doherty, leader of the TSSA transport union, said that under the leadership of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats had gone into the general election with a firm pledge to change the annual fare price rise formula to RPI minus 1%.

Mr Doherty went on: "Mr Clegg should now tell David Cameron he intends to stick to that manifesto commitment and honour his pledge to rail travellers.

"To do anything else would be to betray rail users who voted for him. He has already agreed to too many Tory cuts. It is time he insisted on restricting the rail companies ripping off the passenger every new year."

Mr Doherty said rail companies were pressing ministers to allow a 10% rise.

He went on: "Philip Hammond should tell the greedy rail companies to take a hike. We already have the dearest fares in Europe."

Campaign for Better Transport's public transport campaigner Alexandra Woodsworth said: "Every year, Government policy dictates that the price we pay for most of our train journeys goes up, and that's not fair. Train travel is in danger of becoming a luxury for the rich rather than an essential public service.

"We're calling on the Government to honour its commitment to fair pricing - and to being the 'greenest Government ever' - by reviewing fares to bring down the cost of rail travel. Particularly now, with high fuel prices, we need to make sure the train gives people a real alternative to driving."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, said: "The private rail companies have ripped off billions in profits and subsidies from their franchises since the mid-nineties and it is clear that the Government are bending to their pressure and are prepared to protect them from the cuts by allowing fares to shoot through the roof.

"Private rail profits will be ring-fenced while the travelling public are forced to pay through the nose to travel on overcrowded cattle trucks on dangerously under-maintained tracks."