Commuters have expressed their frustration after it was announced that train fares would rise by an average of 3.4% from 2 January, the biggest rise in five years.

The increase applies to both regulated fares, which include season tickets, and unregulated tickets, such as off-peak singles and returns.

The increase was capped below July’s Retail Price Index inflation rate of 3.6%, a rate that significantly outpaces the latest Consumer Prices Index inflation figure of 3%, and significantly higher than the UK’s earnings growth of 2.2%.

The Rail Delivery Group admitted the rise was “significant”, but argued that the rise was needed to cover the significant investment required to expand the rail capacity and improve reliability, with about 97% of rail fares reinvested in the network.

However, consumer groups and trade unions have complained that fares are already some of the highest in Europe and particularly unreliable, with one in nine trains (12%) arriveing late over the last year. Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus said:

“A chill wind will blow down England’s platforms in January as rail fare increases bite. Many passengers face stagnant or falling incomes while rail fares continue to climb. It is time that the fairer, clearer Consumer Prices Index formula is used as the basis for rail fare rises rather than the increasingly outmoded Retail Price Index.

“While substantial, welcome investment in new trains and improved track and signals is continuing, passengers are still seeing the basic promises made by the rail industry broken on too many days. Passengers’ immediate priorities are clear: a more reliable railway, better handling of disruption and better value for money.”

RMT union general secretary, Mick Cash, added:

“These fare increases are another kick in the teeth for British passengers who will still be left paying the highest fares in Europe to travel on rammed-out, unreliable trains where private profit comes before public safety.

“For public sector workers and many others in our communities who have had their pay and benefits capped or frozen by this government these fare increases are another twist of the economic knife while the ‎private train companies are laughing all the way to the bank.”

The rise in fares comes days after it was announced that the government will allow Virgin Trains East Coast to end its contract three years early, at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £2bn. Virgin Trains East Coast, a partnership between Stagecoach and Virgin, had agreed to pay the government £3.3bn to run the service until 2023, after the Conservative government ideologically decided to re-privatise the profitable nationalised East Coast franchise in 2015.

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