RAIL passengers travelling on the first working day of 2018 are being hit with the largest fare rise in five years.

Average ticket prices across Britain - including for routes in Somerset - went up by 3.4% today, January 2.

Protests were held outside around 40 stations to mark the biggest increase since 2013.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union handed out chocolates to "sweeten the bitter pill" of the price increase.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group which represents train operators, said "nobody wants to see fares going up" but insisted the increase is necessary to improve the network.

He told the Press Association: "All we can do is make sure we invest to improve as fast as we possibly can.

"We've had decades of under-investment which we are now addressing and have been consistently over the last few years, but it takes time.

"We need that money from fares to be able to afford that investment."

Somerset County Gazette:

Many season tickets have gone up by more than £100, including in Prime Minister Theresa May's constituency of Maidenhead, where an annual pass to London rose by £104 to £3,092.

Other commuter routes that are now more expensive include Liverpool to Manchester (up £108 to £3,152), Neath to Cardiff (up £56 to £1,708) and Elgin to Inverness (up £100 to £2,904).

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), accused the Government of choosing to "snub rail passengers" by continuing to increase fares while fuel duty is frozen for a seventh consecutive year.

CBT figures show that average season tickets into London terminals have gone up by £146 this year, compared with £74 last January.

Mr Joseph said: "The extra money that season ticket-holders will have to fork out this year is almost as much as drivers will save.

"That doesn't seem fair to us or the millions of people who commute by train, especially as wages continue to stagnate. What's good enough for motorists should be good enough for rail passengers."

The Government uses the previous July's Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation to determine increases in regulated fares - 3.6% in 2017.

These are around half of all tickets and include season tickets on most commuter routes.

Train operating companies set the prices of other tickets but are bound by competition rules.

Bruce Williamson, of campaign group Railfuture, warned that "people are being priced out of getting to work".

He called for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation measure to be used for regulated fare increases.

It is normally lower than RPI and is used by the Government to set increases in benefits and pensions.

Mr Williamson said: "If CPI had been used instead of RPI since 2004, then rail fares would be 17% lower, a significant amount of money for season ticket holders who are spending thousands of pounds to get to work.

"It's no wonder that poor value for money is the number one concern of rail travellers, with British rail fares amongst the most expensive in Europe."

Somerset County Gazette:

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian times to improve services for passengers - providing faster and better, more comfortable trains with extra seats.

"This includes the first trains running though London on the Crossrail project, an entirely new Thameslink rail service and continuing work on the transformative Great North Rail Project.

"We keep fare prices under constant review and the price rises for this year are capped in line with inflation, with 97p out of every £1 paid going back into the railway."

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was out of the country as the fare increases hit - on a two-day visit to Qatar, where he was meeting members of the Gulf state's government, including the prime minister, as well as chief executives of the Qatar Investment Authority and Qatar Airways.

Mr Grayling has been named as a possible candidate for the axe in a forthcoming reshuffle widely predicted in the press over the Christmas period.

Asked if he would remain in post for the foreseeable future, Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokesman responded: "Chris Grayling is working hard and doing a good job as Transport Secretary."

The spokesman declined to confirm whether the PM was planning a reshuffle.

The Number 10 spokesman said the way fares were calculated was kept "under review", but pointed out that the RPI measure of inflation is used across the industry.

"The use of RPI is consistent with the general approach which is adopted across the rail industry and the Office of Rail and Road," he said. "RPI is used to account for inflation in the cost of running train services and is used to index charges, such as Network Rail charges for using the track.

"But Government carefully monitors how rail fares and average earnings change and keeps the way fare levels are calculated under review."

He added: "We understand that people are concerned about increases in the cost of their rail tickets and the cost of living and we are taking action in those areas."

Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: "Chris Grayling knew that the fares story would be top of the news agenda today but instead of being available to defend his Government's great rail rip-off he booked himself a trip to the Qatari sunshine.

"While millions of passengers are taking a financial hit as they battle their way back to work in the cold and the rain today they will draw their own conclusions from the Transport Secretary's decision to book himself a trip to the desert."

Asked about the purpose of Mr Grayling's visit to Qatar, which will be followed by a day in Turkey later this week, the PM's spokesman told reporters: "There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: "Rail passengers are shivering on platforms angered by the biggest fare increase in years while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.

"It's very difficult to see what useful function he can perform in Qatar and Turkey that our excellent trade officials could not."

A tour of the fare protests by Labour's shadow transport secretary was halted when his train broke down.

Andy McDonald was en route to Leeds from Stevenage when the Virgin Trains East Coast train suffered a power failure in Grantham.

The incident caused major disruption to journeys between Peterborough and Grantham, with passengers warned that services could be delayed by up to one-and-a-half hours.

Mr McDonald said: "My day of campaigning for a publicly-owned railway has been interrupted today because of the breakdown of this Virgin Train as I head to Leeds.

"It's run out of power. A little bit like the Tories."

Train fares in Britain have gone up by an average of 3.4%.

Here are the average increases by train operating companies:

Arriva Trains Wales: 3.3%
c2c: 3%
Caledonian Sleeper: 0%
Chiltern: 3.3%
CrossCountry: 4.1%
East Midlands Trains: 3.3%
Govia Thameslink Railway: 3.3%
Grand Central: 2.1%
Great Western Railway: 3.1%
Greater Anglia: 3.4%
Heathrow Express: 0%
Hull Trains: 2.5%
London Northwestern Railway: 2.8%
London Overground: Most single fares are frozen but Travelcards and price caps will increase by an average of 3.4%
Merseyrail: 3.6%
Northern: 4.7%
ScotRail: 3.2%
South Western Railway: 3.3%
Southeastern: 3.3%
TfL Rail: Most single fares are frozen but Travelcards and price caps will increase by an average of 3.4%
TransPennine Express: 4.6%
Virgin Trains East Coast: 3.4%
Virgin Trains West Coast: 3.3%
West Midlands Railway: 2.8%