Painful cost for East Anglia's commuters

RAIL commuters from Suffolk and Essex are paying hundreds of pounds a year more for season tickets as a direct result of the Government changing the pricing rules.

RAIL commuters from Suffolk and Essex are paying hundreds of pounds a year more for season tickets as a direct result of the Government changing the pricing rules.

It means fares are up to 17pc higher than they would have been under the old rules, taking the shine off National Express East Anglia's reduction of fares from January - due to the lowest inflation rate for decades.

It comes as the Department for Transport ranked stations in East Anglia as among the worst in Britain.

In a report issued today, the Campaign for Better Transport says commuters are being charged several hundred pounds more every year on their season tickets as a direct result of ministerial intervention.

In January 2004, the Government changed the charging policy for regulated fares, allowing train companies to raise them by retail price index inflation plus 1pc. Previously, rises were capped at a below-inflationary rate of RPI minus 1pc.

Cat Hobbs, the campaigning group's public transport campaigner, says: “Despite what the government may want us to believe, its fares policy is hurting passengers, leaving them out of pocket at a time of recession.”

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David Bigg, from the Witham and Braintree Rail Users' Association, welcomed next year's NEEA's price cut next year, but indicated that commuters would not be any better off. “The recession is hitting commuter towns hard - most people have either had a pay cut or a pay freeze.

“The service still has plenty of scope for improvement and until it does, travellers will not be happy with the level of fares charged.”

Colchester's Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell condemned the “privatised monopoly” which had commuters and passengers over a barrel. “When the railways were denationalised, we were promised choice, investment, and a better fares structure.

“This simply has not happened. My constituents are paying through the nose for a worse service and overcrowding.”

Simon Burns, Tory MP for Chelmsford, said year after year, improvements had been promised but seldom materialised. “The news that fares are higher than they need to be will be greeted with dismay by people who have to stand on overcrowded trains which are still subject to delays and which are disrupted continually at weekends.”

NEEA declined to comment on the report but Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: “We entirely agree that people need to be encouraged to get out of their cars and onto trains by rail fares that are good value for money.

“January's average 1.1pc fare rise will be the lowest since privatisation and will also come in below the rate of inflation, representing a real terms cut for many train passengers.”

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “The Government is committed to giving rail passengers better services which is why we have embarked on the single biggest programme of investment in trains for a generation.

“There are only two sources of funding for the railways - taxes and tickets. The current structure has supported this continued investment and enabled us to lower the burden on the taxpayer.”

Meanwhile, stations in the region have been ranked 14th out of 18 in a league table of customer satisfaction.

A NEEA spokesman said: “Like other operators we recognise that much more needs to be done to deliver a consistently good station experience.

“We will continue to work with our industry partners to take forward local improvements and encourage third party funding for projects, for example to improve accessibility at stations.”