Train fares to rise but Westcountry will miss out on major investment
Commuters in Devon and Cornwall face inflation-busting rail fare increases amid criticism of over-crowded, late and ageing trains.
Prices for regulated fares stand to surge 4.1% in the new year, meaning the cost of a 12-month 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 annual 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.
The spike was confirmed just days after 500 passengers were stranded for six hours when First Great Western's (FGW) 30-year-old train from Penzance to London broke down in Wiltshire.
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And critics say the region's rail misery is compounded by the Great Western rail franchise's uncertain future.
Christopher Irwin, chairman of rail users group TravelWatch South West, said: "This is particularly unfair when most people – save for bankers – have had their wages cut or frozen. "The Government says there is record investment in rail but there is a great divide, even in the South West between the 'haves' in the north and 'have nots' in the south."
The hike is linked to RPI (retail price index) inflation, confirmed yesterday at 3.1% in the year to July. Regulated fares are set to rise by an extra 1% when the new prices are announced from January.
The increase affects "regulated" fares – those the government controls, which include season tickets, "anytime" single tickets around major cities, and off-peak inter-city return tickets.
It remains to be seen how train companies – which say they only make 3p profit from every £1 spent on a ticket – implement the change.
They can vary regulated fares by up to 9.1% – but fares that go up by more than the average must be balanced by others that rise by less, or fall.
Labour said it would ban train companies from hiking fares beyond a strict 1%-above-inflation limit, introduce a legal right to the cheapest ticket and crack down on rising car parking charges at stations.
Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said the increase was "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," he said.
The MP said passengers in the region 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".
Many rail passengers in the far South West – served by FGW, Arriva's CrossCountry and South West Trains – think they miss out on the impact of rail investment, such as the £4.2 billion high-speed rail link between London and the north. New electric trains will go no further west than Bristol and Devon County Council and Cornwall Council – rather than the Government – had to pay for new carriages on overcrowded rail services.
Meanwhile, First Group is in discussions with the Government to extend the Great Western contract amid chaos in the franchise system.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said: "These rises are higher than they should be because the Government has bungled the renegotiation of the franchises, which has so far cost the taxpayer £78.5 million. Hard-pressed Westcountry commuters and other travellers are paying a high price for this Government's gross incompetence over the railways."
But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "The taxpayer overall is contributing a lot and I am afraid that the passenger has to make his contribution."
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: "Investment in more trains, better stations and faster services is helping to drive passenger satisfaction to near-record levels."