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Campaigners are calling for an end to the “peak fare rip off”, where commuters in some parts of the country face far higher mark-ups to travel at busy times.
The call came after regulated rail fares in England and Wales jumped by 5.9% on Sunday – the biggest hike in a decade – adding hundreds of pounds to the cost of many annual season tickets despite record levels of poor service.
Consumer groups are now urging operators to make peak fares – which are not necessarily affected by the 5.9% rise – more equitable across the country and to reduce them on less popular days to combat overcrowding.
Research by the Campaign for Better Transport found that the difference between peak and off-peak rail fares “varies widely” across routes, with some commuters paying 5% more to travel on a peak train, while others face a 130% premium on the cost of the equivalent off-peak ticket.
Travelling between Leeds and Selby costs 9% more during peak hours, the charity found, while travelling between Rochdale and Manchester with the same operator costs 25% more.
Norman Baker, from Campaign for Better Transport, said passengers should not “have to face a lottery when buying their train ticket”.
The former transport minister added: “The peak/off-peak fares system is unfair, outdated and counterproductive and passengers are bearing the brunt, and the costs, of a broken system.”
Under the current system, commuters who are unable to work flexibly are charged more if they have to travel on routes with a high “peak premium” and the first off-peak trains are overcrowded, Baker said.
Peak times vary across train operators and routes, but they generally run on weekdays before 9.30am in cities and large towns, and 9am across the rest of the country. Weekends and bank holidays are off-peak all day.
However, since the rise of flexible working in the pandemic, many commuters no longer come into the office at the start or end of the week. The Campaign for Better Transport is calling for a 20% discount on peak fares on Mondays and Fridays to encourage more people to travel on these days when passenger numbers are lower.
This month’s rail fare hike, which affects regulated rail fares, is more than last year’s rise of 3.8% but below July’s inflation rate – which is usually used to determine the increase.
About 45% of rail fares are regulated, including season tickets on most commuter routes, some off-peak return tickets on long distance journeys and “anytime” tickets around big cities.
Examples of potential increases in ticket prices based on the 5.9% rise include the cost of an annual season ticket from Woking to London rising from £3,664 to £3,880. An off-peak return from Birmingham to Cardiff will jump from £67.30 to £71.27, while an anytime day single ticket from Liverpool to Leeds will rise from £39.90 to £42.25.
Meanwhile, Office for Rail and Road figures show the equivalent of one in 25 train services were cancelled in the year to 4 February, representing the worst reliability in records dating back to 2014.