RAIL passenger groups reacted with anger last night as the Transport Secretary warned regional fares might have to soar to pay for better services.
Proposals to wipe out fare differences across the country would see the price of tickets climb on cheaper Northern routes, Patrick McLoughlin admitted.
Commuters in West Yorkshire pay up to 60 per cent less than in other parts of the country for short journeys, according to the Department for Transport, although ticket prices are partly subsidised by a Council Tax precept.
For example, an annual season ticket for the ten mile journey between Bradford and Huddersfield is £952 – but Bath to Bristol, a similar distance, costs £1,504.
Asked, by the Telegraph & Argus, if he was ruling out bringing all fares into line, Mr McLoughlin said: “I’m not, er - I’m not actually ruling it in either.”
The proposal is buried in plans for the new Northern Rail and Trans-Pennine franchises, which are due to be awarded late next year and to start in February 2016.
Northern transport bosses say the difference is justified because of lower incomes in the region – as well as by the older trains passengers must use.
But ministers have vowed that these 30-year-old ‘Pacer’ trains – condemned as “cattle trucks” by critics – will finally be replaced, as part of the new contract to run services.
A consultation document for the franchises highlights how ticket prices in the North are “significantly below” prices elsewhere in the country.
And it asks: “What are your views on increasing below-average fares over time to levels on the rest of the network in order to improve the frequency, capacity and quality of local services?”
Quizzed about the plan at Westminster, Mr McLoughlin said: “It’s a consultation document and we are asking for views on it.”
But he added: “I want to see improved services. We are investing a lot of money into rail in the North – the Northern Hub and the new Trans-Pennine services
“There will be more pressure for better services across those areas and, eventually, better rolling stock for those areas too.”
But the threat of much higher fares was immediately attacked by rail passenger groups.
Bradford Rail Users' Group spokesman James Vasey said lower prices reflected much lower investment in the network.
“People in the South are paying more because they are getting more Government spending – about three times as much in the South-East," Mr Vasey said.
“If they push up fares in the North, then they need to triple investment. It will also move people back into cars and make congestion worse.”
Tim Calow, chairman of the Aire Valley Rail Users' Group, said: "This is a big concern.
"The rail fares have gone up more in West Yorkshire in recent years.
"I don't agree with the fare comparisons being made with West Yorkshire and London. The region is more comparable with the West Midlands, around Birmingham.
"The quality of the service is rubbish compared to London.
"Any changes would lead to enormous traffic issues. Bad enough as it is in Saltaire at the moment. We need to keep the cars out of the city centre.
"People would be more likely to go by car if the fail fares went up. In Bradford there is more room for people to park there."
The row could damage George Osborne’s attempt to woo Northern voters by proposing a ‘HS3’ high-speed rail line across the Pennines.
Rail chiefs also recently admitted plans to electrify the route between York, Bradford and Manchester – allowing faster, ‘greener’ services – are in jeopardy, because of doubts over the cost.