First class rail travel could be scrapped on busy commuter routes under plans that would see train companies being paid to provide extra standard class seats.
The Government said it was considering such a move to ease overcrowding and confirmed it was in talks with a number of operators about ideas including financial incentives for train firms with busy commuter routes who ditch their first class offering.
The plans emerged as rail fares in the UK rose by an average 3.1% – sparking one charity to warn of a potential return to cars for commuters as it would make more financial sense.
Campaign groups and rail unions have all pointed out that fares are rising far faster than wages, despite a Government policy decision to limit increases, at a time of freezes in fuel duty.
The 3.1% rise is for regulated fares which include season tickets. The increase on unregulated fares, typically off-peak leisure tickets, is not capped.
But a number of these fares, including some on the East Coast route, are going up by less than 3.1%.
The overall price rise in tickets – regulated and unregulated – is 2.8%.
The regulated fare increase pushes some commuters into the £5,000-a-year “club”, with annual season tickets to London from Deal and Dover Priory costing £5,012.
The rise also means some annual season tickets will break the £4,000 mark, with a Basingstoke-London annual fare now costing £4,076.
The Department for Transport said fare increases would help fund £38bn of investment in the rail network over the next five years.
But shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said the fare rise was “a continuation of David Cameron’s cost-of-living crisis”.
Campaign group Railfuture said: “This latest fare rise comes after 10 years of inflation-busting fare increases, meaning that our trains are easily the most expensive in Europe.”
FiguresCom show that UK commuters are spending far more of their salaries on rail fares than some European passengers.
The Action for Rail group said it had compared UK average earnings with season tickets covering similar commuter routes across Europe.
Many UK commuters were paying almost 15% of their salary towards a season ticket, compared with less than 5% in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.
According to a report by the Campaign for Better Transport, rail fares are rising so fast that by 2018 the Government will be making “a profit from passengers”.