Rail fare increases have become a political football

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Commuters across the South East - who already pay some of the highest train fares in the country - are bracing themselves for average season ticket price rises of 3.5% in January, following the announcement of the July inflation figures.

That means commuters travelling from Dover Priory to London, who already pay £5,012 for a season ticket, could face an increase of £175.

Those travelling on a season ticket from Folkestone Central could see their fares go above the £5,000 mark to £5,158 - with a potential increase of £174.

And commuters in Sussex don't escape either.

The price of a season ticket from Hastings to London is likely to increase from £4,724 to £4,889.

An annual ticket for First Capital Connect trains from Brighton to London may also go up by £127 to £3,767.

Political football

Some fares could potentially go up by even more as train companies have a "flex" rule which allows them to increase some regulated fares by 2% above the average, as long as the overall average remains at the Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation - 2.5% - plus 1% level.

This means some fares could go up by 5.5% in the new year.

It's the train companies which set the fares but the government could decide, as it did for January 2014, to keep the rate to RPI plus 0%.

At a time when wages are stagnant for many, the government is under increasing pressure to tackle the high cost of fares.

The issue has also become a political football.

The potential increase was immediately condemned by Labour, with the Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh saying: "David Cameron has failed to stand up for working people struggling with the cost of-living crisis."

But the new Rail Minister Claire Perry hit back via Twitter saying: "Amazing how Labour are silent on their toxic track record of inflation busting fare increases plus underinvestment in our railways."

She went on to say: "Now Labour want to abolish the fare flex - is that the one they set at 5% that we cut to 2% to help hard pressed commuters?"

'Fair fares'

She did concede that passengers had had to contend with "inflation-busting fare rises almost every year over the last decade" but insisted the government was committed to "fair fares".

But while politicians trade blows, there has also been criticism of the potential increases from other quarters too.

The TSSA transport union is urging Conservative ministers to stop the "annual persecution of millions of rail passengers with inflation-busting increases".

And the Campaign for Better Transport points out that fares have gone up by more than 24% since 2010, while wages have only risen by 6.9% over the same period.

David Sidebottom, from watchdog Passenger Focus, says many passengers will be concerned about the fare rise and is urging the government to step in again, as it did last year, to ensure that train fares in England do not rise above the rate of inflation.

It is perhaps understandable that these rail fare increases will frustrate commuters already feeling the squeeze from high living costs.

The government says it's only fair that fares are paid for by passengers not all taxpayers.

But given the fare rises would be introduced in January - less than five months before the next general election - maybe ministers will decide to act to try to prevent disgruntled commuters becoming disgruntled voters.

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