Alexandra Woodsworth: What's green about encouraging us to drive?

Steep fare increases today and an uncomfortable return to work on crowded trains will galvanise a rebellious new movement
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Grumbling about trains and the weather is a fact of British life; but this weekend we really do have something to be angry about. Today, train fares rise across the country, and passengers will be forced to pay up to 12.8 per cent more on some routes, more than twice the rate of inflation.

Long-suffering commuters who welcomed the Government's promise of "fair pricing for train travel" when it came to power last May will be wondering what exactly is fair about paying hundreds of pounds more for a season ticket every January, while seeing few, if any, improvements to their daily service. They're likely to be even more outraged to learn that the coalition is planning even higher rises from January 2012, with prices set to increase by 25 per cent by the time of the next general election in 2015.

Campaign for Better Transport aims to harness this anger with Fair Fares Now, a one-year campaign to make the Government keep its fair fares promise. The campaign, launching this week, will invite passengers and the wider public to get involved in preventing even higher fare rises in 2012, and pressing for cheaper, simpler tickets and services that provide good value for money. That's what "fair fares" should mean, and that's what passengers expect the Government to deliver.

This New Year, as the cost of living rises along with VAT, and many employees struggle to manage on frozen pay packets, we are beginning to see passengers priced off the railway. Some people are now being forced to pay out a staggering one-fifth of the average UK salary for their season tickets. Many are already being forced to make difficult choices between getting to work and other vital expenses, with low-paid workers particularly hard hit. Some are moving house or changing jobs to avoid paying fares they simply can't afford.

Government figures show that the planned fare increases from 2012 are likely to result in fewer people using the train. Instead of managing the railways as an essential public service, open to everyone, trains are in danger of becoming a luxury affordable only to the rich.

Pricing travellers off the train is not only deeply unfair to individual rail users, it is also not in the national interest. Easy access to work by public transport, at a time of economic hardship, is essential to the health of the UK economy. Reducing this access by way of fare hikes undermines the Government's objectives of getting people back into jobs. With season tickets in Britain costing twice as much as they do in the rest of Europe, we also run the risk of pricing people out of the labour market in London and other major cities, and of damaging the UK's competitiveness in a global marketplace.

We need to make taking the train easy and cost effective if it's to have a chance of competing with the convenient, but high polluting, private car. Instead, while train fares have been rising every year, the overall cost of driving has been falling. With the planned rail fare hikes in 2012, we're facing a "war on the passenger", not a "war on the motorist". The resulting increased carbon emissions and congestion certainly won't help David Cameron achieve his goal of making his the "greenest government ever".

And what will passengers get in return for the price of their over-inflated ticket? The Government claims that these fare rises are needed to pay for investment in new trains and other improvements, which is certainly desperately needed. But, in another case of "unfair fares", passengers are paying vast sums now for improvements that are many years off, or from which they will never benefit, because they never use the routes that are receiving investment.

The UK's railway is highly expensive to run when compared with its European counterparts. The Government knows this, and is looking at how to get costs down – but it needs to do this first – not force passengers to pay over the odds to compensate for decades of underinvestment in a fragmented and inefficient railway.

But if commuters returning to work on Tuesday have a lot to be angry about, they can take heart from the fact that they are many, they are potentially politically powerful, and they are not alone in their opposition to rail fare rises.

A recent YouGov poll found that the planned fare hikes for 2012 were the single most unpopular policy announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, opposed by eight out of 10 people. There is another figure that should worry the Government: 74 per cent of regular rail users in the South-east plan to switch their support away from parties that raised fares at the rate this government is planning. Their votes could make all the difference in key battleground seats in London and the Home Counties.

Fares could also be a very divisive issue within the coalition, given that the Lib Dems promised to cut rather than increase rail fares. This particular broken promise may not cause protests in the streets as tuition fees did, but the Government would be foolhardy to ignore the rising anger of the powerful commuter belt.

Alexandra Woodsworth is public transport campaigner at 'Campaign for Better Transport'.