Rail fares in England will rise by up to 5.9% in March after what the government called “its biggest ever intervention” to keep the cost of travel below soaring inflation.
It is the first time in more than 25 years that regulated rail fares have increased by less than inflation. The leap in the cost of rail travel, the biggest in the last decade, will take effect from 5 March.
Campaigners and businesses said the increase was a blow to travellers while Labour called it a “sick joke” with many rail companies, especially in the north, failing to run adequate services.
The increase is 6.4 percentage points below the July 2022 inflation figure based on the retail prices index (RPI), which the fare rises have normally matched.
Instead, the government said it had for this year only aligned the increase to that month’s growth in average earnings instead of RPI.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “This is the biggest ever government intervention in rail fares. It has been a difficult year and the impact of inflation is being felt across the UK economy. We do not want to add to the problem.
“This is a fair balance between the passengers who use our trains and the taxpayers who help pay for them.”
The Department for Transport said taxpayers had subsidised the railways by £31bn since the start of the pandemic – a figure that is at least £16bn more than it would have expected under normal conditions.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “This savage fare hike will be a sick joke for millions reliant on crumbling services. People up and down this country are paying the price for 12 years of Tory failure.”
David Sidebottom, the director of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said research showed most passengers did not think railways were delivering value for the fares. He said: “After months of unreliable services and strike disruption, it’s clear that too many passengers are not getting a value for money service.
“Capping fares below inflation and the delay until March is welcome and will go some way to easing the pain, but the need for reform of fares and ticketing in the longer term must not be forgotten.”
Campaigners contrasted the fares policy with the government’s action on motoring and aviation. Norman Baker of the Campaign for Better Transport said that while the increase could have been much worse, “this is still a large rise which will deter some people from using the railways”.
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He said: “This increase stands in stark contrast to the situation with fuel duty, which was cut earlier this year after being frozen for years.”
Baker said fares should be frozen to encourage a return to rail, funded by taxing fuel on domestic flights.
Clive Wratten, the chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “People travelling for work have been hammered by strikes, inconsistent timetables and cancelled trains in the run-up to Christmas – this is another grab for their wallets.”
Rail strikes, in the long-running dispute over pay and conditions, resulted in only 20% of trains running last week, with more strikes on Christmas Eve and from 3 January across Network Rail and train operators. An overtime ban by Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union and Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association members at train operators has also massively affected services in some areas, notably on South Western and Chiltern railways. On top of staffing issues, TransPennine Express said IT problems caused it to cancel a third of trains and warn passengers to stay away on Wednesday.