IT WOULD be an exaggeration to say that rail users have got used to very low annual increases in fares.

Certainly, the last couple of years (with increases of just 0.8 per cent in 2016 and 1.8 per cent from January this year) have been easier to swallow but we have to go back to 2010 to find a year when rail fares actually fell.

That year was a very rare exception; the previous year had seen an increase of six per cent, the following years, 6.4 per cent and 6.2 per cent respectively.

So, the news this week that a 3.6 per cent rise would be imposed from January 1 next year, would seem to be nothing out of the ordinary.

And yet the increase is the steepest for five years and comes at a time when incomes are already being squeezed by higher prices.

The figure is set by the Government and linked to the retail price index (RPI) in July each year.

The change applies to so-called “regulated” rail fares, including season tickets for many commuter routes, some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys and “Anytime” tickets.

Although this affects less than half of all fares, it is often a benchmark for the “unregulated” fares – for such as off-peak leisure and first-class – which are set by the train companies across the network.

When the Office for National Statistics announced the figure at 3.6 per cent on Tuesday, it was higher than anticipated by economic forecasters and prompted an angry reaction from many rail travellers.

Rail unions and campaign groups immediately called for the increase to be linked instead to the Consumer Price Index – the Government’s own preferred measure of inflation – which rose by 2.6 per cent in July.

The RMT claimed that its analysis showed that rail fares had risen by 32 per cent in eight years while average weekly earnings had grown by 16 per cent over the same period.

The price of a standard adult 12-month season ticket for travel between Keighley and Leeds, for example, is currently £1,176 compared with £924 in 2010. It will increase by a further £42.34 on January 1, an overall rise of 31.8.

Tim Calow, chairman of the Aire Valley Rail Users Group (AVRUG), said the rise would mean extra costs for travellers and put a squeeze on their spending.

“The use of RPI is to reflect the cost base of the railway industry,” he said. “It does make some sense for the operation of the franchises.

“This, however, doesn’t help customers when their earnings increase is less.

“The cost increase will impact on different people to varying extents.

“The railway will still continue to provide the fastest and most cost-effective means of travel for many commuters to Leeds. We suspect rail will still be used by many leisure passengers.”

In fact, satisfaction with the railways among passengers has been improving. A survey of 27,000 passengers by independent watchdog Transport Focus released just three weeks ago showed a three per cent increase in overall satisfaction across the country.

Sadly, figures for Northern Rail West and North Yorkshire were not included. The Northern Rail franchise was taken over by Arriva (from Serco & Abellio) in April 2016 and there was insufficient data available, although they had previously been broadly in line with the national trend.

Transport Focus, however, placed Northern Rail overall 17th out of 26 rail operators surveyed.

Director David Sidebottom criticised the increase: “Yet again, passengers, now majority funders of the railway, face fare rises next January.

“Commuters do not give value for money on their railways a high satisfaction score – just one third according to our latest survey. So, while performance remains patchy and with pay and wages not keeping pace with inflation, they will feel rightly aggrieved if they are paying much higher rises next January.”

He also called for the Government to switch to using CPI as its inflation measure when setting fares.

“Why is the Government not using its preferred measure of inflation: the one that is used to determine wages and pension increases, and one which is often lower than RPI?” he asked. “Why not use the Consumer Prices Index for rail fares too? Passengers deserve a fairer deal.”

Even the ONS criticised the use of RPI. Spokesman James Tucker said: “The National Statistician has been clear it is not a good measure and we do not recommend its use."

The Government has defended the increases and how they are set.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We carefully monitor how rail fares and average earnings change, and keep under review the way fare levels are calculated.

“We are investing in the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century to improve services for passengers – providing faster and better trains with more seats.

“We have always fairly balanced the cost of this investment between the taxpayer and the passenger. We are driving the industry hard to improve efficiency to ensure we maximise the value of passengers’ and taxpayers’ investment in the railways.”

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies, said: "Money from fares pays to run and improve the railway, making journeys better, boosting the economy, creating skilled jobs and supporting communities across Britain, and politicians set increases to season tickets. It's also the case that many major rail industry costs rise directly in line with RPI."

Improvements in the railways can’t come quickly enough for the district’s rail users, who are concerned that the increases are not reflected in the quality and number of rolling stock.

Tim Calow said: “We are concerned that promised investment in the Northern network does materialise.

“Overcrowding in our services is a chronic issue and there has been minimal investment for many years.

“Network Rail, Northern and the unions need to work together if the railway is to offer value for money to both rail travellers and the taxpayer.”