Are UK commuters prepared to put up with eye watering rail fare hikes? Complaining about the rail service is already a staple British topic of conversation, harnessing this as a protest could be a natural next step. With feelings running high, and wallets feeling lighter, maybe this is the day when passengers will stand up and say enough is enough.
The political weight of irate rail passengers should not be underestimated. Last year, a YouGov poll we commissioned found that 74% of regular rail users in London and the South-East could switch their support away from a political party that introduced an increase in the cap on rail fares.
New figures from Campaign for Better Transport released last week highlight the scale of the gap between rail fares in the five biggest European capitals; an annual ticket from a commuter town outside Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Rome cost a fraction of the price of an equivalent ticket to London.
Italian commuters pay a tenth of the UK price, while the French have the second most expensive fares and yet still only pay less than a third that passengers in the UK pay. If this was not bad enough, UK rail fares have risen above inflation again this new year, and government policy means even steeper rises in 2013 and 2014. By 2015 our fares will be 24% higher than 2011 prices. These sorts of disparities do nothing to help the competitiveness of both the UK and London.
Tuesday 3 January is a national day of passenger protest. Commuters sitting in rail carriages or crowded into vestibule areas across the country are being asked to tweet the Treasury at @hmtreasury with #farefail, or send a text with the key word farefail to 88802 or to make a call to the Treasury on 02072705000, to let George Osborne know how much their fare has gone up and what that means to them. Full details are on the www.farefail.org. The action is being promoted by a coalition of organisations but it relies on everyone who is sick of overpriced trains to help to spread the protest.
We hear from people, week in week out, who are affected by the fare rises; working parents who can't afford the cost of childcare as well as their season ticket, people having to move closer to their job, families who pay more on train tickets than they do on their mortgage. It paints a very worrying picture. The government calculates that there will be 4% fewer journeys by rail as a result of the 2012 fare increases, but it is very difficult to tell if this is an underestimate. Pricing people off public transport is the last thing we need, and makes a mockery of David Cameron's pledge to be the greenest government ever.
However many people simply have no choice but to get on the train to work. Driving into London, or to any of our major cities at rush hour, only further clogs up our congested roads, making journeys even longer and adding to pollution. Regulation was brought in to protect rail passengers, but now government policy is using regulation to bring in revenue for the Treasury.
Passengers are already contributing a growing percentage of rail income and investment funding, though with the lack of transparency around the issue means we can be far from sure what will happen to these additional funds. Fare rises have become in effect a stealth tax on those people who do the right thing and use public transport.