Big rises in rail fares 'will drive more passengers on to roads'

Big rail fare rises that take effect next week will drive train passengers on to the roads, a pressure group has claimed.

Season ticket holders face rises of 5.8 per cent from Sunday but, as this is an average figure, some long-suffering commuters will be forking out even more.

A watchdog also warned that passengers could mount an angry backlash against costly proposals to snowproof the railway network.

There will be even more bad news for train travellers from January 2012 as the average rise for regulated fares, which include season tickets, will go up from the present 1 per cent above RPI (retail prices index) inflation to 3 per cent above RPI.

"We think this is hugely unfair. I don't think motorists or airline passengers will be suffering price hikes like this," said Mike Crowhurst of the pressure group Railfuture.

He continued: "Rail fares in Britain are already amongst the highest in Europe and we think this will just drive even more people on to the roads, which will result in even more congestion and pollution. So this will have an impact on car drivers too.

"The Government claims to have a green agenda, so it must not discourage people from using the greenest form of transport.

"During the election they said they would end the war on the motorist. Now it looks like they're declaring war on the rail passenger. You can't cure overcrowding by pricing off demand."

The group is calling for changes to the way transport is taxed.

Mr Crowhurst said: "We need a level playing field. For instance, why is air travel exempt from fuel duty when rail isn't?

"The rail industry pays a huge amount back in tax to the Government, at least 1.4bn, which only contributes to the high cost of rail fares.

"Also, the Government uses the RPI inflation figure instead of the lower CPI (consumer prices index), which further increases fares."

Mr Crowhurst said the Government-commissioned McNulty Report into the value for money of the rail industry would identify efficiency savings in the region of 1bn.

He added: "It's important that these savings are passed on to the passenger, not the Treasury. We know that the Government is trying to reduce the taxpayer's contribution to the running of the railways, which is understandable, but we think they're going too far.

"There are many reasons why the wider community benefits from a decent rail network, and it's in everyone's interest that passengers are not priced off the railway."

The Government and the rail industry have insisted that higher fares are vital to allow for continued investment in an already-overcrowded rail system.

The rises will, however, come as a bitter blow to weather-weary commuters who have had to endure restricted services during the harsh winter and who are balancing budgets at a time of wage freezes and high inflation.

The watchdog Passenger Focus warned that travellers who will have to shoulder the inflation-busting price rises in the new year are likely to rebel if expensive modifications are passed on in increased ticket prices,

The head of the watchdog suggested commuters might prefer to suffer a few days of winter disruption instead of paying more.

Chief executive Anthony Smith said rail users should now be consulted on plans to overhaul the network.

"We need to ensure that the costs don't pile up," he said. "Passengers need to be asked about the balance of the cost of doing this weather-proofing of the railways, against the bill that will increasingly fall on rail users."

Rail passengers faced chaos earlier this month as the network buckled under wintry conditions, leading to a host of cancellations and delays, with some commuters forced to sleep in stations in the run-up to Christmas.

A Whitehall-commissioned report into the transport industry's response to the heavy snow suggested changes could be made to the third rail, which supplies power to trains.