Government urged to freeze rail fares after warning ‘slap in the face’ 1.6% season ticket hike will price passengers off trains
The Government is being urged to freeze rail fares after a 1.6% planned rise in season tickets (PA)
The Government is being urged to freeze rail fares after the announcement of a 1.6% increase in season ticket prices despite the coronavirus pandemic was labelled a “slap in the face” for consumers.
Ministers were told more passengers will be priced off the railways amid a huge fall in the number of people travelling by train due to the pandemic.
The annual rise in most regulated fares, which normally comes into force every January, is linked to the previous July's retail price index (RPI) measure of inflation, which was announced by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday.
It is much higher than the more commonly used measure of inflation, the consumer price index (CPI).
But the planned 2021 rise is lower than the average increase of 2.7% which kicked in in January 2020, and rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris said: "We expect any rail fare rise to be the lowest in four years come January and any increase will go straight to ensuring crucial investment in our railways."
He added: "Taxpayers have been very generous in their support to keep trains running throughout the coronavirus pandemic and whilst it's only fair that passengers also contribute to maintaining and improving the services they use, a lower rise will help ensure the system returns to strength."
But Manuel Cortes, general secretary of union the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), said: "There should be no planned increase in rail fares.
“Doing so in the middle of a health emergency and emerging economic crisis will help no-one.
"Since the pandemic, our railways have kept key workers and vital supplies moving. There can be no doubt how vital our rail infrastructure is for the wellbeing of our nation and for our efforts to decarbonise our economy.
"With that in mind our industry needs a new start which puts passengers not profits first.”
The union chief urged the Government to do more to encourage leisure travel on the railways to make up for a long-term drop in commuter numbers.
And he is calling on ministers to put in place “a new affordable and more flexible fare structure which serves the needs of changing working patterns”.
'THIS REGRESSIVE FARE INCREASE HITS THE LOW_PAID HARDEST'
Rail, Maritime and Transport union assistant general secretary meanwhile Mick Lynch said: "The fact that this Government appears to be pushing ahead with yet another extortionate fare rise in January shows just how out of touch they are.
"This regressive fare increase hits the low-paid hardest and will only serve to price more passengers off our railways and push even more people into their cars at a time when rail is in crisis.
"What we urgently need to see is bold and innovative leadership to give passengers what they want - a publicly-owned railway with affordable and flexible ticketing that's good value and suits their needs as part of the Covid-19 recovery."
The RMT is also calling for new flexible rail tickets to be launched to reflect the changing nature of work, a move which is backed by passenger watchdog Transport Focus.
Its chief executive Anthony Smith said: “Like the government’s restaurant deal, we need a ‘head out to help out’ campaign to help get the country on the move again, boost the economy and reduce traffic on our roads.”
'SLAP IN THE FACE'
The Lib Dems are calling for a full freeze on rail fares until the next election, and want to see additional funding to increase capacity and build a network “fit for the future”.
The party’s transport spokesperson Sarah Olney said: “Any plans to go ahead with a fare increase this year will be a slap in the face for consumers.
"Our railways are a key part of a sustainable transport network, vital in the fight to tackle the climate emergency and cut air pollution."
She added: “Rather than putting off commuters with yet another price hike, the Government must help the industry recover from the Covid 19 crisis.
“This means freezing fares and investing to increase capacity to make sure we have a rail network that is fit for the future.”
Labour warned that the new price hike means the average commuter will now be paying £3,113 for their season ticket, which is £919, or 42%, more than in 2010.
The figure comes after comparing the costs on over 180 train routes.
Jim McMahon, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “Decisions taken by Government Ministers are making rail travel unaffordable and discouraging people back on to the network which will be vital for getting the rail sector on a stable footing.
“The truth is that our fragmented, privatised railway drives up costs and leaves passengers paying more for less.
“Labour has long argued that public ownership of the rail network will provide better value for the taxpayer and for passengers, the Government must stop paying the profit of the private rail companies and bring the network in-house.”