Rail companies accused of hiding increases

Rail fares will see their lowest annual increase since privatisation next year, but that will not spare some passengers from price hikes of as much as 15 per cent, Britain’s train companies have revealed.

Passengers will see an average price rise of 1.1 per cent from 1 January, below the level of inflation expected by economists next year. However, train operators were immediately accused of attempting to dupe their customers after it emerged that some fares would see increases of well above inflation.

Rail firms will be forced to lower the prices of regulated fares, which include most commuter fares, season tickets, and long distance off-peak journeys, by 0.4 per cent as a result of the measure of inflation used to calculate them. According to the Retail Prices Index, inflation stood at -1.4 per cent in July. Companies are only allowed to increase regulated fares by one per cent above that figure. Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, also stepped in to enforce stricter limits on regulated fare increases earlier this year after ticket prices saw record increases at the start of 2009, despite the recession.

However, the slight fall in regulated fares will be accompanied by increases in the cost of other types of tickets. Some unregulated fares, which include advance-purchase and walk-on tickets, will see steep rises. A supersaver ticket from Swindon to London will rise by 15 per cent from £20 to £23. A spokesman for First Great Western, which runs the line, said that the ticket price had been cut severely in September, making it considerably cheaper than a year ago.

A walk-on return from London to Bristol Temple Meads will also rise above the rate of inflation, increasing from £153 to £159. Some off-peak returns on the Southeastern franchise will see a 7.3 per cent rise. A Cardiff to Manchester advanced-purchase ticket will increase by nearly ten per cent, from £11 to £12.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) was accused of trying to mask the big price rises on some routes. While it has given an average price rise for regulated and unregulated fares for each rail company in the past, Atoc refused to give a similar breakdown of the increases yesterday, raising fears among passenger groups that the overall 1.1 per cent price increase was being used to “hide some horror stories” of much more severe price hikes.

Ashwin Kumar, the passenger director at Passenger Focus, said that Atoc’s refusal to give further details of price rises was deeply worrying. “Its departure from usual practice in publishing details of average regulated and unregulated fare increases for each rail company raises concerns that there are some large price rises for some passengers,” he said. “Passengers need to be told how much more they will be paying next year.” Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said the 1.1 per cent figure represented the most “outrageous piece of spin” of the year.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats’ transport spokesman, said: “Even though inflation has been falling, rail companies still managed an overall increase in fares. We all recognise that times are tough but putting rail fares up will not get people back on to the railways.” Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said the figures were nothing more than “spin and gloss” that showed that the privatisation of the railways had been “a taxpayer-sponsored rip-off”.

Michael Roberts, Atoc’s chief executive, defended the price rises. “Not only is January’s average fare rise the lowest since privatisation, but it will come in well below the rate of inflation, meaning a real- terms cut in prices for many passengers,” he said.

Meanwhile, figures released by the RAC today show that the price of motoring has fallen by five per cent this year. Its annual Cost of Motoring Index found that the average £123 annual saving was due largely to falling petrol prices. However, eight out of 10 motorists said they still believed that the cost of running their car had risen.