Guardian News and Media/London
Rail bosses have defended the biggest annual increase in train fares in five years in the face of dozens of demonstrations against the rise by commuter groups and unions at the UK’s busiest stations.
Senior Labour politicians, including the shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, joined protests over average fare increases of 3.4% and season ticket increases of 3.6%. The rises, the biggest since 2013, are more than the consumer price index inflation rate and well above average increases in annual earnings.
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, declined broadcast interview requests to defend the rises, despite protests at about 40 stations. He left the task to Paul Plummer, the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, who claimed the increases would help improve services.
“The fares are actually leveraging more investment from private sector and government,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. He added: “It underpins that investment, so we can continue to improve.”
Speaking from a newly refurbished London Bridge station, Plummer said he understood the frustration of commuters and said no one wanted to pay higher fares.
He added: “I’m a commuter myself, I have travelled 30 years on the railway. All we can do in the industry is use the money, whether it be from taxpayers or fare-payers, as best we possibly can to improve as fast we can.”
Asked about 42-year-old trains on some parts of the network, Plummer said: The oldest trains on the railway are going to be replaced very soon. Those trains are on order, they are coming very very soon ... It can’t all happen at once.”
Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, which manages Britain’s rail infrastructure, said: “We all share the objective of wanting to keep fares as low as possible. I’m not responsible for setting fares. My job is to make sure that the money we are given is spent as efficiently as possible and on the best possible projects.”
At Manchester Piccadilly, one of the busiest stations in England, travellers were exasperated by the fare hikes. “It’s not a public transport service if most people can’t afford it,” said Lynn Macdonald, a PA travelling home to Bristol. “It’s become way too expensive.”
Anthony Paul Dodwell, a window cleaner travelling to Scunthorpe, said: “It’s beyond a joke really now. It wouldn’t be so bad if they put enough coaches on so you got a seat but to pay these prices and still have to stand is just not on.”
The north of England has the worst-performing rail firms in the country. In the run-up to Christmas, 72.5% of services operated by First Rail Hull were late or cancelled. Virgin Trains, which in 2018 is now charging £169 for a walk-up, peak-time single to travel from Manchester to London, managed to operate just 31% of services on time between November 19 and December 23, the Sunday Times reported.
Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, joined protesters at London’s King’s Cross station to condemn what he said were “truly staggering” fare increases.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “This franchise system has completely and utterly failed. We have a fractured, expensive and complex system – it duplicates costs and there are dividends going out to subside railways on the continent. This is an absolute racket.”
McDonald called for a switch to link rail increases to consumer price index, which he claimed would save commuters £500 over the course of a parliament. He added: “Having risen at three times the rate of earnings I think people have got to the end of their tether and quite understandably so.”
McDonald pointed out that fares had risen three times more quickly than wages since the start of the first David Cameron government.
Separate analysis by the TUC said rail commuters in Britain were spending a considerably higher proportion of their salaries on season tickets than equivalent travellers in other European countries.
The TUC’s figures used the example of a season ticket to London from Chelmsford in Essex, which had risen to £381 a month – 13% of average London salaries.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union handed out chocolates to “sweeten the bitter pill” of the price increase.
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