"Ridiculous" 4.1% rail fares hike to hit Devon and Cornwall commuters in pocket
Commuters in Devon and Cornwall face inflation-busting rail fare increases amid criticism of over-crowded and late running trains and uncertainty over the future of the service.
Prices for regulated fares will surge 4.1% in the new year, meaning the cost of a season ticket on the popular Plymouth to Exeter route could rise by more than £83 to £2,111.
The Truro to Falmouth commuter link faces jumping £17 to £433 for a yearly rail pass, and an Exeter-Barnstaple 12-month season ticket could be up by £52 to £1,312.
Next January's rise will be the sixth time in seven years that rail fares have outstripped wages. Between 2008 and next January rail fares will have jumped by 40%, compared with a 15% increase in average earnings.
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The hike, linked to official inflation figures published today, comes amid complaints rail services in the far South West are being overlooked as the Government commits billions to new infrastructure.
And the future of the Great Western rail franchise, which includes inter-city services to London and branch-line links on the peninsula, remains in doubt after the new tendering process was scrapped, delaying an improved time-table and replacements ageing rolling stock.
Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said: "Commuters across Cornwall and Devon will find this a bitter pill to swallow.
"The proposed rise of 4.1% on train fares is, frankly, ridiculous. We all know that family budgets are already very stretched and this would mean that an annual ticket from St Austell to Truro, a distance of just 14 miles, would now cost around £620. This is sure to make people think twice about using the train rather than the car at a time when we should be encouraging more people to travel by train not putting them off with huge price hikes on what is already a dysfunctional service that needs improving.
"I will be raising the issue with ministers. I'd prefer to see any ticket price increase being linked to improvements in the train service, that would mean that people know when they are being asked to pay more it is for a better service not as it is now where they are being asked to pay more for a service that isn't frequent enough, is often over-crowded at peak times and doesn't come with basic services like food and drink or wi-fi."
RPI inflation rose by 3.1% in the year to July, down from 3.3% last month, but regulated fares are set to rise by an extra 1% when the new prices are announced from January.
Campaign for Better Transport published research showing that rail fares are increasing nearly twice as fast as incomes, outstripping increases in wages by nearly 14% since 2007.
Chief executive Stephen Joseph said: "Getting to work is now the biggest single monthly outgoing for many commuters – more than food, more than housing.
"One of the surest ways of stamping on any green shoots of recovery is to price people off the trains and out of the jobs market.
"For the sake of the economy, we should end above-inflation fare increases now and start planning for fare reductions."
David Sidebottom, passenger director of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers will shrug wearily at the news that regulated fares in England are set to rise.
"Now passengers are the main funders of the railway, it is crucial that, in return for this rise, more trains arrive on time, investment in future improvements continues and the basic promises the industry make are delivered."
Many rails passengers in the far South West are sceptical of the impact of billions invested in rail.
While a Reading station overhaul will cut delays on journeys to London, new electric trains will go no further west than Bristol and the next generation of inter-cities will only go Exeter - and very occasionally.
And when last extra services were unveiled to ease overcrowded rail services in parts of the Westcountry – from Truro to Falmouth in Cornwall and between Paignton, Exmouth, Exeter and Barnstaple in Devon – involved Devon County Council and Cornwall Council stumping up £120,000 between them.
At the same time, the Government wants to spend £4.2 billion on high-speed rail between London and the north.
Pinch points across the region include on the Truro and Falmouth line, where passenger numbers have doubled after an EU-funded passing "loop" was installed in 2008.
First Great Western is in discussions with the Department for Transport to extend the Great Western franchise until 2016 after a new 15-year deal – which could have brought about much-improved services – was pulled amid chaos in the franchise system.
The 4.1% rise on regulated fares, which include season tickets, is an average figure, with each train company able to put fares up above this figure on some routes as long as all its regulated fares average 4.1%.
Ministers and the rail industry defended the increases.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said nobody liked paying more for fares but the Government was investing heavily in the railways.
Speaking from Nottingham station, where £130 million-worth of work is going on, Mr McLoughlin said that taxpayers contributed huge amounts to the running of the railways and passengers had to make contributions – both as rail travellers and as taxpayers.
He said: "Running the railways is a very expensive business. The taxpayer overall is contributing a lot and I am afraid that the passenger has to make his contribution. He does it as a taxpayer and as a passenger as well."
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), said: "Since 2004, it has been Government policy to allow regulated fares to rise above inflation in order to support investment in more trains, better stations and faster services.
"This is helping to drive passenger satisfaction to near-record levels while seeking to reduce taxpayers' contribution towards the cost of running the railways.
"In order to help limit future fare rises, the rail industry is working with the Government to find ways of providing services even more efficiently, building on the progress that has already been made."