Protests over rail fares at St Albans City station

COMMUTERS challenged the “unfair” and “confusing” hike in train fares by staging a protest at St Albans station last Friday.

Supported by Labour district councillor Martin Leach, the commuters gathered support from other passengers and informed them of what the real-term effects would be of the price changes which came into force at the start of this month. They were also keen to make commuters aware that they might face higher than expected fare rises when they come to purchase tickets in the New Year.

The decision to highlight the issue comes in part from figures released by independent watchdog, Passenger Focus, which reveals that most of the UK’s passengers are expecting government-regulated fares to increase by 5.8 per cent but many people are unaware that in 2011 train companies have been given the flexibility to pick and mix which fares will go up, which will stay the same and which will decrease.

That means that train companies will be free to raise fares on individual routes which could lead to confusion amongst passengers who had been under the impression that fares would only rise in line with averages published in November.

These unregulated fares will go up by nearly seven per cent on average but Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus, said that in some cases passengers could see double-digit fare increases.

Cllr Leach said the blame lay with the Tory-led government who were hitting local commuters really hard and that it was the Tories who had reversed the Labour government’s decision to force train companies to apply price controls to individual fares. “Now many local commuters will see their fares go up by 8.5 per cent this year and this is set to continue year on year. We are looking at fare increases of nearly forty per cent over the next four years.”

He also accused the Tory-led government of making empty promises and the Lib Dems of caving in. “In opposition, the Tories said that an increase in rail fares of this amount would price people off the railways and yet that is exactly what they’re doing. The Liberal Democrats promised to cut rail fares so that they rose by less than inflation, making this either yet another promise they knew they couldn’t afford or one more cave-in to their Conservative partners.

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“What’s for sure is that this is a real blow to St Albans commuters just as they are facing the squeeze from wage freezes, a VAT rise and cuts to child benefit. It’s a real kick in the teeth for hard-working local families and individuals.”

As of January, First Capital Connect’s prices rose by 5.5 per cent, which is slightly below the national average rise of 6.2 per cent announced by ATOC – the Association of Train Operating Companies – back in November.

A spokesperson for FCC said they had sought to minimise price rises and that on most tickets, these were the first price rises for two years. He said: “We want to encourage continued growth in rail travel and we have set out prices accordingly.”

He explained that unregulated fares were set by train companies so that they could honour financial commitments set out in their franchise agreements with the government. For several years these agreements had been signed against the background of the government’s policy to shift the funding of the railways from the taxpayer to the passenger.