MORE than half of Scottish rail commuters now struggle to afford full fares, a new poll has revealed.

Passenger anger has soared over recent years as rush hour services rise in cost but fall in quality and reliability.

Now a survey has found 55 per cent of regular travellers say they find it hard to pay peak fares - and 59 per cent claim they struggle to find seats on trains at the most expensive and busiest times.

The poll, of more than 1000 people for Censuswide Scotland, also found 82 per cent of passengers agreed or strongly agreed that peak hours were the worst time to travel.

The new research comes after national operator ScotRail suffered a torrid winter spell of cancellations and delays.

It also follows a January hike in fares of 2.8 per cent on average but 3.2 per cent on the anytime full fares and season tickets used by regular commuters working the old standard 9-5 day.

Fares are rising less quickly than in England - where they remain 20 per cent higher - but this proved little consolation to commuters.

Only one in 50 Scots travel by train daily but they make up a huge proportion of all journeys and are most likely to pay either full fare or buy season tickets.

Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie, of Scottish Labour, said: "As the poll clearly demonstrates commuters are fed up – they don’t think they are getting value for money and on current performance they are right.

"Commuters across Scotland have seen their transport fares sky rocket while the quality of their transport service has plummeted.

"In my constituency, the train service has been particularly poor for months, and characterised by delays and cancellations.

"When trains do show up, there are only three carriages instead of six, so commuters are crammed in like sardines on peak hour services."

Ms Baillie, who is a regular traveller, urged Transport Secretary Michael Matheson to freeze fares and push for better performance.

Full fares are applied on the busiest "peak" services - in the morning almost everywhere and in the evenings on flagship routes like Glasgow-Edinburgh.

They are designed to encourage passengers to travel at less busy times and take the strain off core commuter services. Rail insiders insist this is fair - because they have to mobilise far more staff and equipment at rush hours.

However, the Censusworld poll suggests passengers do not agree. Two-thirds said it was unfair to penalise those who have to travel before lower fares kick in, at 9am.

ScotRail, which is run by Dutch firm Abellio, has been losing money. It stressed that it did not set the main full fares - that is down to the government.

A spokesman said: “Eighty-five per cent of our revenue comes from fares set by the Scottish Government, which decides how much our customers pay.

“The money generated from fares is reinvested back into Scotland’s railway, including through new and upgraded trains, so that we can improve the service our customers receive.”

Full anytime fares can be far higher than reduced ones.

A discounted off-peak return from Bearsden to Glasgow is £3.70. The full fare, allowing travel before 9am, is £5.30. It costs £13.30 to travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow off-peak but £25.30 anytime.

The Scottish Government and its quango, Transport Scotland, has rejected calls for a fares freeze, saying this would hit the public purse.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We are committed to ensuring that rail fares are affordable for all – for fare-payers and tax-payers across Scotland.

"Overall, Scottish fares are 20 per cent lower than the GB average and we already meet around two thirds of the cost of rail passenger services in Scotland."

The spokesman added that the current franchise - with Abellio - foresaw total new investment of £475 million. That includes efforts to boost the number of seats by 23 per cent by the end of this year.

The spokesman added: "More widely, we are currently undertaking a review of the National Transport Strategy, which will consider our long-term approach to ensuring the affordability of transport across Scotland."

David Sidebottom, director at the independent watchdog Transport Focus, called for reform of fare pricing.

He said: "We know just over a third of ScotRail commuters are satisfied with the value for money of their ticket. Despite substantial investment in new trains and track, many passengers have yet to consistently experience a more reliable railway with punctual trains, accurate information and less disruption.

“Passengers also want a smarter ticketing system that they can understand and trust, is simpler to use, better value for money and offers choices that suit the way we travel now."

There are parallel reviews under way of Britain's railways and their fares. Unions have been campaigning for Abellio to be stripped of its franchise - and for renationalisation.

Transport Salaried Staffs' Association General Secretary Manuel Cortes said, “This is a chance for Scotland to lead instead of trailing. Last year Michael Matheson said that it would cost Abellio £58million to freeze the fares.

"Well that’s pennies compared to the £7billion over ten years that the ScotRail contract is worth.

“Privatisation isn’t working for the economy of Scotland. On average every rail passenger is losing 29 hours of productive time a year. That’s time in work, or relaxing and recovering from work. Bad commutes make for tired and stressed workers.

“Right now Abellio is fleecing Scottish commuters. Scottish passengers know their journeys will be delayed every week, they know they’re unlikely to get a seat at peak times, and they’re being forced to pay far too much for they privilege. Abellio need to go."

The SNP has promised to ensure there is a public-sector bid for the next Scottish franchise with state-owned ferry operator Calmac understood to have been teed up for this role.

Jordan Ferguson, from pollsters Censuswide Scotland, said: "As the debate around Scotland’s public transport network continues, we thought it was important to understand the public opinion and attitudes towards these services.

"What this study shows is a clear concern from the public around the pricing structure at peak time."