Record rail fare rises 'punishing passengers'

Season ticket prices to increase by 6 per cent – twice the level of inflation
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The Independent Online

Passengers must be protected from the biggest fare increases since the railways were privatised, according to opposition parties, unions, green campaigners and the rail watchdog.

With record rises in prices due to come into force tomorrow, the Government is under pressure to intervene. Regulated fares, which include season tickets and off-peak services, will increase by an average of 6 per cent, twice the level of inflation. Unregulated fares, which include advance purchase tickets, will rise by 7 per cent.

Some commuters will pay even more. Those buying a season ticket between London and Gillingham, a service run by Southeastern Railway, will have to shell out an extra £280 a year, a rise of 10.2 per cent.

The price of a Canterbury to London season ticket will go up by 8.6 per cent, while the Tonbridge to London service will cost 9.5 per cent more. Passengers on Virgin's Coventry to London service will pay more than £400 more a year from tomorrow.

Recent changes to fare restrictions mean that some passengers buying their ticket on the day of travel at a peak time will face paying as much as 15 per cent more compared with the cost of the same ticket last January.

Government rules dictate that annual fare rises must not exceed one per cent above inflation. But a quirk in how the increases were calculated meant that they were set last July, when the economy was still booming and the Retail Price Index (RPI) was at 5 per cent.

Since then, the economic crisis has seen the RPI sink to 3 per cent in November. It is expected to plummet further in the new year, making tomorrow's fare increases the steepest since rail privatisation 16 years ago. Passengers on Britain's 20 busiest services would be paying an average of £76 less if the fare increases had been calculated using the current rate of interest.

Critics say the large rise will punish the poorest who spend more of their income on travel and force people back into their cars, setting back the fight against climate change.

Passenger Focus, the independent rail consumer watchdog, called on the Government to put an immediate freeze on all further price increases, while introducing a limit on the range of fare rises that could be introduced. So far, the Government has refused to take any action over the fare increases. "Fare rises that hark back to a time of high inflation and spiralling energy costs look very out of kilter," said Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus. "Perpetual tinkering with ticket restrictions ensure back door fare rises continue."

Norman Baker, transport spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Government must step in to avoid these increases. It stepped in to stop the rise in fuel duty. I don't see why rail should be any different. Ask people whether they want widened motorways or cheaper rail fares and I think the answer would be pretty clear. The Government's whole policy in this area has been to force fares up, rather than help social exclusion or make a real difference to climate change."

The Conservatives' transport spokeswoman, Theresa Villiers, said: "In these difficult financial times, the Government should be doing all they can to ensure that the rail industry keeps costs under control and that both the taxpayer and the farepayer get much better value for money."

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), which announced the fare increases in November, say they will help fund "major investment" in the rail network. Michael Roberts, its chief executive, said travelling by rail would still be "considerably less expensive than commuting by car, even allowing for falling petrol prices – and journey times are usually quicker too".

It blames the extent of the fare increase on the Government's determination to cut the subsidy handed to the rail industry by 40 per cent by 2014.

The Department for Transport urged rail operators to "strike a balance" when setting ticket prices, but it has no plans to step in to protect passengers from the higher prices. "We cap regulated fares," said a spokesman. "The revenue they generate helps cover the cost of providing services and has also enabled the single biggest programme of investment in railways for a generation."