RAIL passengers returning to work after the festive break are being hit with the largest fare rise in five years sparking widespread anger and fears it could force more people to commute by car.

Average ticket prices across the country went up by 3.4 per cent on yesterday, as many commuters began their first journeys to work of 2018.

A peak-time ScotRail ticket between Edinburgh and Glasgow will increase from £23.80 to £24.70, while a 12-month season ticket between the two cities will rise by £136 to £3,956.

Protests were held outside around 40 stations yesterday 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 said: “All we can do is make sure we invest to improve as fast as we possibly can. We have 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.”

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

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, accused the Government of “snubbing rail passengers” by continuing to raise fares while fuel duty is frozen for a seventh consecutive year.

But Shadow Transport Minister Andy McDonald said increasing rail fares is a “counterproductive move” and there is a “real danger” it could force more people into commuting by car.

He added “the height of these increases is totally unacceptable”.

Pressed on the impact the increases may have on commuters, he said: “It is already happening, we reached a high point of 1.7 billion journeys in the UK in recent times – which is wonderful. It is now going the other way, and we are seeing for the first time in many years those numbers starting to reduce, and the take-up of season tickets is now beginning to reduce as well.”

Asked if the increase in rail travel may push people into using cars instead of trains, he said it is a “real danger”.

Figures from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre show salaries fell by 1.6 per cent last year when inflation is taken into account. Real-terms pay has increased by 1.8per cent since January 2013, however regulated fares have increased 12.7 per cent over the same period.

Labour MSP Colin Smyth said: “The SNP seem to think passengers in Scotland are getting a fair deal. They’re not. Rail fares have increased faster than wages over the last five years and that is unacceptable, particularly given the ongoing delays, cancellations and overcrowding rail users experience with ScotRail.”

A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said: “Scotland’s rail fares increase is lower than inflation and lower than the average increase across the UK.

“We want to see more people take the train and we recognise that this means prices have to be affordable and fair.”

Alex Hayman, director of public markets at consumer group Which?, said: “This price rise is yet more bad news for passengers, many of whom have just come to the end of yet another year of cancellations, delays, overcrowding and poor service from train companies.”

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has also come under fire for being in Qatar as rail fares increased.

Mr Grayling went to Qatar to meet members of the Gulf state’s government, including the prime minister, as well as chief executives of the Qatar Investment Authority and Qatar Airways.

Asked about the purpose of Mr Grayling’s two-day visit, which will be followed by a day in Turkey later this week, Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “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.”