Rail fares set for inflation-busting rise

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The Independent Online

Millions of rail passengers will face above-inflation fare rises in the new year, with some tickets going up more than 7%, it was announced today.

Regulated fares, comprising season tickets and saver fares, will be rising 4.3% on average from January 2.

Unregulated fares, which represent about 60% of total fares, will be going up by an average of 4.7%.

Unregulated fares on the both the Gatwick Express and the Heathrow Express will be rising an average of 7.3%, while unregulated fares on Virgin West Coast will be increasing by an average of 6.6%, the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) announced.

There will also be big rises for commuters on the Southeastern franchise, where a special agreement means an average rise in regulated fares of 6.3%.

The current regulated fare regime allows for annual increases of 1% on top of the retail price index figure in July of each year, which this year was 3.3%.

Atoc director-general George Muir said: "While no-one likes to pay more for their travel, we need the revenue to pay for the ongoing improvements to the railways that passengers expect - and overall satisfaction levels are now at an all-time high of 80%.

"Train operators will continue to raise their game, delivering further improvements to the railway and enhancing the travel experience of passengers.

"Rail travel is proving very popular, with more passengers travelling this year. The challenge now is to get extra capacity on to the railway and route plans are under way to this end."

Examples of new fares include a 6.5% rise in a standard open return from London to Plymouth on First Great Western, with the ticket rising from £201 to £214.

However, a return saver ticket on the same route will remain the same at £64.

A cheap day return from London to Canterbury on Southeastern is rising 6% - from the current £18.40 to £19.50, while a standard day return on the same route is increasing 11.1% from £19.90 to £22.10.

Passenger Focus, the independent national rail consumer watchdog, said some passengers would face significant increases while a few fares would drop.

Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith added: "Inflation-busting price hikes on top of already high fares will make for an unhappy passenger new year.

"If you now want to travel longer distance in the peak and don't know exactly when you are coming back you will pay very, very dearly."

He added that passengers could still get relatively good value travel if they can afford a season ticket or can book in advance.

However, trains are becoming fuller by the day. Also, train companies are chasing every penny to pay off their premiums to the Government.

Mr Smith went on: "If passengers want flexibility or have no choice about when to travel, they now face off-putting prices.

"Levels of crowding now mean there is no more room for manoeuvre - people are being priced off the railways just as the off-peak is also becoming crowded."

He said that some fares had already gone up. For example, passengers wanting to travel between London and Edinburgh in the new year were being quoted saver ticket prices of £98.20, when they should currently be charged £94.10, a difference of £4.10.

Mr Smith said: "This negligent slip is a double whammy for passengers facing fare rises. We have referred this issue to the Department for Transport, urging them to take action.

"Any passenger who is worried they have paid too much should contact their train company as soon as possible. Train companies must repay the difference."

Brian Cooke, chairman of passenger group London TravelWatch, said: "While we accept fares have to rise sometimes, any price rise above inflation is regrettable and will seem a lot to passengers in and around London who are increasingly faced with crowded platforms and trains.

"Most train companies on the busy commuter lines in London are now paying the Government huge premiums, so are being forced to put up fares to a level that is extremely bad news for passengers, meaning effectively that many rail passengers in London are paying a stealth tax to the Government as part of their fare."

Shadow transport secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is very unwelcome news for passengers and will only underline the fact that things are really not right on our railways. We have inflation-busting fare increases at a time when trains are becoming more and more overcrowded and absolutely nothing is being done to tackle the problem.

"The Government promised us big improvements in its (transport) 10-year plan - virtually none of those improvements have happened. Now you have train companies ripping out the seats to create extra standing room and expecting passengers to pay through the nose to travel like sardines."