Rail Delivery Group chief claims increases will help improve services as commuter groups hold demos at busiest stations

Rail bosses have defended the biggest annual increase in train fares in five years in the face of dozens of demonstrations against the rise by commuter groups and unions at the UK’s busiest stations.

Senior Labour politicians joined protests over average fare increases of 3.4% and season ticket increases of 3.6%. The rises, the biggest since 2013, are more than the consumer price index inflation rate and well above average increases in annual earnings.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, declined broadcast interview requests to defend the rises, despite protests at about 40 stations. He left the task to Paul Plummer, the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, who said the increases would help improve services.

“The next few years are going to see improvements right across the country,” he said. Speaking on the expanded concourse of London Bridge station, which reopened fully on Tuesday after years of rebuilding, he said he understood the frustration of commuters.

He said: “As an industry we can make sure we take the best use of that money. We have had decades of underinvestment.”

Figures from the rail regulator showed Britain’s trains were now older than they were since after privatisation, with 42-year-old trains still operating on some parts of the network. Plummer said they would be replaced soon, adding: “There will be 5,700 new trains by 2021.”

Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, which manages Britain’s rail infrastructure, said passengers would see many of the benefits of investment this year, including London Bridge’s reopening followed by the upgraded Thameslink train service in May, and the start of Crossrail services by the end of the year.

He added: “Obviously today we see a fare increase and I know passengers are not happy, nor with the reliability of the railway, and that’s why we are investing so heavily to improve it.”

Commuters at London Bridge welcomed the improved station, which will have capacity for double the current 50 million passengers a year, and will see more and faster Thameslink services resume from May.

Stephen Powell, who connects across via Waterloo East from Farncombe, Surrey, to work in HR in the City, said: “Hopefully things will improve. Since August, the train service has been abysmal: late, unpredictable, cancellations.” He said of the season ticket price rise: “I daren’t look, it’s like a mortgage. If it all worked, I’d put up with it – we get paid higher wages to work in the City – but it’s not working now.”

Mat Biernat, from Catford, who works in retail, said of his Southeastern service now stopping at London Bridge: “It’s really positive. But there still needs to be some improvement.” He said services were more frequent in his native Poland. “And yes, definitely much cheaper.”

At Manchester Piccadilly, one of the busiest stations in England, travellers were exasperated by the fare rises. “It’s not a public transport service if most people can’t afford it,” said Lynn Macdonald, a PA travelling home to Bristol. “It’s become way too expensive.”

Anthony Paul Dodwell, a window cleaner travelling to Scunthorpe, said: “It’s beyond a joke really now. It wouldn’t be so bad if they put enough coaches on so you got a seat but to pay these prices and still have to stand is just not on.”

The north of England has the worst-performing rail firms in the country. In the run-up to Christmas, 72.5% of services operated by First Rail Hull were late or cancelled. Virgin Trains, which charges £169 for a walk-up, peak-time single to travel from Manchester to London, operated only 31% of services on time between 19 November and 23 December, the Sunday Times reported.

At Euston station in London, law student Jodell Jackson said the fare rises were unfair. “They have been increasing the fares for a while now. I have to buy my ticket two months in advance,” she said. Her grandmother, Mary Agbajoh, said: “When I heard that on the news, I thought every year it goes up but our salaries are not going up as well. So it is becoming unaffordable.”

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, joined protesters at King’s Cross station in London to condemn what he said were “truly staggering” fare increases.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “This franchise system has completely and utterly failed. We have a fractured, expensive and complex system – it duplicates costs and there are dividends going out to subsidise railways on the continent. This is an absolute racket.”

McDonald called for a switch to link rail increases to the consumer price index, which he claimed would save commuters £500 over the course of a parliament. He said fares had risen three times more quickly than wages since the start of the first David Cameron government, and added: “I think people have got to the end of their tether and quite understandably so.”

Separate analysis by the TUC showed rail commuters in Britain were spending a considerably higher proportion of their salaries on season tickets than equivalent travellers in other European countries.

The TUC’s figures used the example of a season ticket to London from Chelmsford in Essex, which had risen to £381 a month – 13% of average London salaries.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union handed out chocolates to commuters on Monday to “sweeten the bitter pill” of the price increase. The union’s general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “Passengers are paying more and more for less and less.

“Our members are protesting today to say it is time to cut our fares, not our staff, and for a publicly owned railway where every penny of passenger revenue goes to improving services.”