As people prepare to return to work after the New Year, rail campaigners are warning that commuters face yet another year of inflation-busting fare increases and service cuts.
Train fares will increase by 3.9 per cent, on average, from today (2 January 2013) with some passengers facing hikes of up to 10 per cent on their journeys, points out the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Research published last month by the TUC's Action for Rail campaign shows that average train fares have risen nearly three times faster than average wages since the beginning of the recession in 2008.
The huge disparity between fare and wage increases means that a family of four (two adults and two children) looking to travel to London on an anytime ticket from Swansea, Plymouth, Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle in 2013 would have to pay more than the average weekly wage of £481.
As well as being asked to pay more, passengers also face the prospect of ticket office closures and fewer staff on trains and stations.
Train operators are expected to make significant cuts to jobs in 2013 in an attempt to find £3.5 billion savings across the rail industry by 2018/19 - a target set by the government in response to the McNulty Review published last year.
Train operators have already begun to implement ticket office closures and seem keen on speeding up the process, warns the TUC.
Last month, Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, called on the government to scrap the regulations that currently require passengers to be consulted over ticket office opening hours and station closures.
Passenger surveys consistently demonstrate that the travelling public want more staff on trains and at stations and currently over half of the tickets purchased nationally are through face-to-face contact with ticket office or train staff.
TUC General Secretary and chair of Action for Rail Frances O'Grady commented: "I understand the frustration felt by many commuters going back to work today. At a time when real wages are falling and household budgets are being squeezed, rail travellers are being forced to endure yet another year of inflation-busting fare increases."
She continued: "As well as having to shell out record amounts of money for their tickets, passengers also face the prospect of travelling on trains with fewer staff and having less access to ticket offices. They are being asked to pay much more for less."
ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan added: "Over a year ago, when he was the transport secretary, Philip Hammond warned that the cost of tickets was making the railways 'a rich man's toy'."
"Ever since then the government has stood idly by as fares have rocketed. Is this their solution to over-crowded trains - pricing the poor off the rails so the rich can sit comfortably?", asked Mr Whelan.
TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes said: "The coalition is squeezing rail passengers until the pips squeak with the latest inflation-plus increase."
"Ministers have increased regulated rail fares by 16 per cent in what they admit is the age of austerity. We now have the highest fares in Europe and the government plans to hike them above inflation every year until at least 2019 if it wins the next election," he declared
Unite national officer Julia Long concluded: "Today's inflation-busting rail fare rise is a smack in the face for the country's commuters, already stung by this government's out-of-control austerity. It is not even as if rail travellers will be getting more for their money, as rail operators are slashing staff numbers and closing ticket offices too."
"The government should be doing more to stop this blatant profiteering by rail operators and get serious about curbing sky-high rail fares," she said.