Amid the cacophony of moaning and groaning accompanying this week’s nationwide return to work was an eye-catching headline from satirical site The Daily Mash: ‘So we meet again, Southern tells commuters’.
As someone who used to brave the Northern line on a daily basis, I can imagine the impending sense of doom felt by thousands of Southern customers as January 3 edged ever closer. Months of disruption thanks to staff shortages, industrial action and, if social media is to be believed, complete ineptitude on the part of the train operator, is enough to give anyone a New Year hangover.
And now, what fresh hell is this? More strikes on the horizon, more cancelled services and more people crying on the inside as they wait for their train into work.
To add insult to injury, salt to the wound and fuel to the flames (insert your own cliché/platitude here), higher rail fares came into effect on Monday, with passengers across Britain facing an average rise of 2.3 per cent. That’s an inflation-busting increase by anyone’s standards.
Happy New Year, Southern customers, you are now paying £980 more for your season ticket than in 2010.
But it’s not just the embittered Southern commuters who started 2017 with a kick in the teeth. Some rail passengers are now shelling out 43 per cent more for season tickets than they did seven years ago.
And of this year’s price rises, Virgin Trains East Coast has imposed a 4.9 per cent average increase on its services, the highest of any operator. That’s not all. The company has hiked up the price of some off-peak singles by 7 per cent.
With the consumer backlash already in full swing, figures from Vouchercloud.com, also released this week, show that the UK’s rail fares are the highest in Europe.
While it’s tricky to compare like with like in this instance, Vouchercloud based its data on each EU country’s capital city train station, and the train station closest to 50 miles away. The company also selected the price for a single on the day of travel, and the price per mile for each journey.
The results? Despite its relatively small land mass, the UK has the dubious honour of first place when it comes to train prices in Europe – an eye-watering 50p per mile.
In second place is Austria with 41p per mile, while France, Holland and Ireland follow with prices above 30p per mile.
Compare this to Eastern Europe. Poland and Lithuania both cost below 10p per mile, while 13 of the 25 countries featured offer prices below 20p per mile. In fact, the average across the whole of the EU is just 22p per mile, less than half of the UK figure.
Chris Johnson, head of operations at Vouchercloud, said: ‘An average price increase of 2.3 per cent across the rail network for 2017 may not seem a lot in and of itself. However, when we have numbers that show our train prices are already the most expensive across the whole of Europe, it tells a whole different story.
‘The very least we can expect is an improvement in service and reduction in delays and cancellations – and if that doesn’t happen this year, then we’re justifiable in our complaints that a once proud, still hugely important transport network here in the UK is holding commuters hostage.’
Of course, the word ‘hostage’ implies there is some wiggle room for negotiation. I suspect the long-suffering Southern passengers believe that is as likely as, oh I don’t know, the trains actually running on time.
Helen Nugent is Online Money Editor of The Spectator