Rail passengers who spent 2018 wrestling with strike action, widespread cancellations and the worst punctuality in a decade will stage protests at railway stations around the country on Wednesday as fares rise by 3.1%.
As commuters begin returning to work after the Christmas holiday, they face above-inflation ticket price increases described by Labour as an “affront” following well-documented disruption last year.
The average fare increase outpaces the 2.6% rise in the average wage in 2018 and will add hundreds of pounds to the cost of season tickets for some rail passengers.
Costs will come down for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are to be given half-price travel on all trains from September – benefiting up to 1.2 million people – according to an announcement by the government in November, at the same time as the wider fare increase was revealed.
But the vast majority of passengers are to pay more despite poor service, prompting renewed calls from Labour and the Trades Union Congress for UK railways to be nationalised.
The TUC said privatisation was “rewarding failure” by handing more than £1bn in dividends to investors in train companies over the past six years, even as ticket prices soared.
The fare increase, which comes into force on 2 January, is due to be met with a “national day of action” at dozens of railway stations, after groups of disgruntled commuters came together on social media to organise protests under the banner #RailRevolution.
Demonstrations are taking place at stations including King’s Cross in London, Norwich, Sheffield and Walsall.
Anthony Smith, the chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers now pour over £10bn a year into the railway alongside significant government investment, so the rail industry cannot be short of funding. When will this translate into a more reliable services that are better value for money?
Commuter anger has grown after a difficult year for many rail users, including severe disruption on the Thameslink and Northern networks caused by the introduction of new timetables, in chaotic scenes that could result in train operating companies and Network Rail being fined for poor performance.
Other problems included weather-related disruption, the renationalisation of the east coast mainline for the second time in 10 years and delays caused by strikes and engineering works.
The string of setbacks led to rail punctuality in the UK reaching a 12-year low.
The government has launched a review of the UK rail network, led by the former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, after the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, admitted it was “no longer fit to meet today’s challenges”.
But Labour has called for the railways to be renationalised, pointing to analysis from the party showing some fares have risen by more than £2,850 since 2010.
The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said: “Today’s rail fare increases are an affront to everyone who has had to endure years of chaos on Britain’s railways.
“Falling standards and rising fares are a national disgrace. The government must now step in to freeze fares on the worst-performing routes.”
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “The most reliable thing about our railways is the cash that goes to private shareholders each year. But with the most expensive fares in Europe, that can’t be right. It’s rewarding failure and taking money away that should be invested in better services.
“It’s time to take the railways back into public hands. Every penny from every fare should go back into the railways. The number one priority should be running a world-class railway service, not private profit.”
Andrew Jones, the rail minister, said fare rises had been higher under the last Labour government: “For the sixth year in a row fares are only rising with inflation. Labour’s 13 years in office saw inflation-busting fare rises of up to 7.5%.”
Jones added: “Rather than squabbling with their union backers as they obsess over who runs the railways, Labour should be be welcoming the fact that Conservatives in government are delivering a huge fare cut for a generation of travellers with the introduction of 50% discounts for 16- and 17-year-olds and one-third off for rail travellers 30 and under.”
How to beat the rail fare rise
Rail fare rises are inevitable, but there are several ways to minimise the pain.
Travel at the best time Companies sell cheaper off-peak tickets which can be used when services are not as busy.
Buy tickets for one-off journeys in advance If you are able to commit to a particular train on a particular date, huge savings can be made with an Advance ticket. These are supposed to go on sale 12 weeks before travel, but this has been reduced for many journeys due to timetable problems.
Consider a season ticket If you are making the same journey at least three days a week then a season ticket can be more cost effective. Weekly, monthly and annual tickets are available. An annual pass offers 52 weeks’ travel for the price of 40.
Buy season tickets at the right time Many savvy commuters renew their season tickets in the days before the annual rise is implemented.
Get a railcard Many people can save a third off rail fares by getting a railcard. The discount cards are available for a range of people, including those aged between 16 and 25, the disabled, the armed forces, people aged 60 and over, families and people travelling with another person such as a friend, partner or colleague. A new railcard for people aged 26-30 will be available nationwide from noon on Wednesday 2 January.
Travel in a group Groups of between three and nine adults can save a third off the price of off-peak tickets with most operators on certain journeys.
Try split ticketing Rather than buying one train ticket from your departure station to your destination, it is sometimes cheaper to break the journey down into multiple tickets. Several split ticketing websites exist to show passengers if they can save money this way.
Claim compensation Passengers can claim compensation if journeys are delayed or cancelled. Payouts vary depending on the type of ticket, the length of delay and the operator. Some firms begin paying compensation if a train is delayed by 15 minutes. However, payouts are not automatic – you need to apply.