Sunak’s fares dilemma

Rail commuters will be looking nervously at the announcement of July’s inflation level. That’s because they know that the annual rail fares increase to be imposed¬† in January will be based on that figure.Last year they escaped relatively lightly as ministers realised that a rise based on July 2022’s 12.3 percent figure would have caused a political train crash especially given the poor performance of a network beset by strikes and random cancellatuons. So they split the difference – sort of – and imposed a 5.9 percent rise instead, still by far the highest in more than a decade.

The private train companies may well be the initial target of passengers’ ire over the increase in fares but it is not their decision and they have no say in the matter. The responsibility lies clearly with ministers who will argue that the subsidy to the industry has risen sharply post Covid leaving them no choice.

But that is not true. Trains were kept running during the pandemic at vast expense on government orders to provide travel for key workers. So today’s travellers should not have to pay extra because of that. There is just a ray of hope that the government may not impose the 7-8 percent¬† implied by the July RPI figure.

From the evidence of his time as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak is no train buff. Helicopters and limos are more his cup of tea but he may still think an intervention to limit the rise is necessary. Not only is 2024  election year but Sunak will have noted the furore over proposed ticket office closures which has even angered normally supportive newspapers. He has too wanted to see people back working in offices. If he has learnt that the railways are a political hot potato, then he might decide to give hard-pressed rail commuters a respite.

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