Passengers furious over rail chief's 'gold card' for free travel

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The Independent Online

New controversy broke out yesterday over the decision by Britain's rail chief to accept a free first-class train ticket worth £19,500 a year.

Passengers' representatives acknowledged privately that the acceptance by Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), of a special "gold card", enabling him to travel without cost anywhere on the network, made rail customers "very angry".

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers' Council, revealed that his organisation had been offered free rail travel, but had rejected it.

He said: "We thought that in order to do our job properly, it was absolutely vital that we should have the full passenger experience ... Simply turning up at stations, striding through the ticket hall and boarding the train wouldn't give anyone any idea of what it is like for everyone else."

While the SRA chairman uses his card for work and private purposes, passengers' leaders were only being offered free travel for official business.

Mr Francis, who refused to criticise Mr Bowker directly, said the council's 150 members and staff had made a "unanimous" decision to reject complimentary travel.

Mr Bowker, who recently announced fare increases, receives the free travel benefit from the train operators, to which he hands millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

Launching the Rail Passengers' Council's annual report, Mr Francis said he would fight any attempt by the SRA to allow massive increases on Saver tickets, which give passengers cheap long-distance travel. Virgin has sought support from the authority for a 20 per cent increase in the price of Saver tickets.