Environmentalists and passenger groups have attacked the Government for driving rail passengers on to low-cost flights by presiding over a fourth consecutive year of inflation-busting train fares.
Sixty per cent of tickets sold have unregulated fares, which are set by private rail companies. These prices have gone up by as much as 8.4 per cent - more than three times the Government's target rate of inflation - so that a standard open return ticket between Manchester and London now costs £219, or £337 for first class.
The transport union TSSA said the increase meant UK rail fares were "by far and away the most expensive in Europe". Michael Meacher, a former environment minister, said the Government had "missed a golden opportunity to point up the benefits of public transport, and to make a very strong point about climate change". Instead of allowing train fares to go up, the Government should have capped or lowered them, he said.
Jason Torrance, campaigns director of the Transport 2000 pressure group, said the price rises flew in the face of "the Government's rhetoric about climate change".
Despite a poor image, with expectations of late trains and bad service, the railways have recently become popular. Approximately 83 per cent of trains ran on time in 2005 and customer satisfaction levels are at an all-time high of 80 per cent.
The train operating companies cannot keep up with demand and increased fares - rather than increased investment - are being used as a way of tackling the problem. That means flying is attracting more customers.
Those hit hardest by the fare increases are people who use trains at peak times. A standard open return ticket on the London to Glasgow service now costs £240. A standard open ticket from London to Plymouth is £214.
Business travellers have been hit harder than those who can choose to travel at off-peak times or can plan ahead. A Manchester to London ticket can be picked up for as little as £12.50 for those booking weeks in advance. But business travellers are those who are most likely to switch from rail to air, according to environmentalists. "Rail is an ideal solution for tackling the increase of low-cost airlines but these increases are instead pushing more people to use them," said Mr Torrance. "That's a disaster. The CO2 emissions from a London to Brussels trip by rail is 10 per cent of that by air."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said the Government's "limited green record" had been shot to pieces at a time when vast airport expansions were being permitted. "Motoring costs have been steadily declining as a share of income while the cost of public transport has steadily risen," said Mr Huhne. "These trends have to be reversed if we are to tackle climate change. Gordon Brown's claim to be environmentally friendly is clearly nonsense. Transport emissions are up 18 per cent since the Kyoto base year of 1990. Any climate change programme which does not tackle this sector is not worth the paper it's written on."
Chris Grayling, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "This is further evidence that high fares are a deliberate part of government strategy to tackle overcrowding on trains. We can't expect people to leave their cars at home if they are being priced off the railways."
The TSSA union compared the £219 London to Manchester (200 miles) fare with the £34.50 it costs to travel from Paris to Calais. Travelling from Madrid to Barcelona (387 miles) or from Berlin to Bonn, (365 miles) costs just £63 in each case.
A Department for Transport spokesman said the Government was already spending record sums - on average £88m a week on the railways - meaning that 42 per cent of the costs of the railway are met by taxpayers. "We regulate some fare increases," he said. "Most commuter tickets and saver fares have their average increases capped at inflation plus 1 per cent. Setting fares which are not regulated is a commercial decision for train operators. It is in their interests to provide an attractive range of fares and to encourage more passengers to use the railway."
Why we took the plane from Manchester to London
"We never use trains any more. We don't feel safe on them; they're full of yobbos and drunks. Flying is much more convenient. It's more comfortable, and the cost doesn't really enter into it. I wouldn't care if the train was much cheaper; I would still want to fly."
Bernard Dewhurst, 67, from Lancashire, and his wife, Vivien
"I'm flying because I find trains really unreliable. I would use trains if they ran regularly, but now the prices are going up it makes them look even less attractive, and who wants to have to book ahead anyway? The whole point of getting a train is being able to jump on it. I do consider the damage to the environment flying makes, but this doesn't stop me. In this instance I'm doing the convenient thing."
Maxine Shapira, 39, a secretary from Rochdale
"I find trains completely unreliable and I'd rather get the plane. I can get from Manchester to London in 40 minutes. Planes are faster, more convenient and more comfortable. If the prices are going up for trains, I think more and more people will fly. I'm just not very environmentally sound, I'm sorry to say."
Alison Gilroy, 35, a teacher from Lancaster
"I would use trains if I was going to central London... but I'm getting a connecting flight today. If I knew I was going somewhere I'd book ahead and take advantage of the cheaper [rail] fares."
Helen Kaye, 37, hairdresser from Huddersfield
Manchester to London by rail
Every day, 34 trains - many of them packed - leave Manchester Piccadilly bound for London Euston
The cost of a ticket varies, but after yesterday's increase a standard open return is now priced at £219 (an 8.4 per cent rise)
The true cost:
Each passenger's journey produces 14.8 kg of CO2
London to Manchester by air
Every day, 48 flights take off from London bound for Manchester airport
Costs vary but return tickets for travel today were available last night for £171 (including tax)
The true cost:
Each passenger's journey produces 90kg of CO2Reuse content