Rail commuters were threatened yesterday with £1,000 fines or jail for refusing to pay fares in protest at delays and overcrowding. In an essentially middle-class revolt, rush-hour passengers on trains from stations in Somerset staged a "strike" against cuts by First Great Western.
The train operator said most customers paid and only a "handful" were involved in the strike. But protesters said up to 2,000 "rebelled" and, despite the dire threats, inspectors turned a blind eye to those without tickets.
Leaders of the campaign group More Trains Less Strain (MTLS) said time-table changes had led to overcrowded trains and more delays. Commuters were urged to present train officials with an alternative "Fare Strike" ticket. The strike tickets were intended for use by anyone travelling to Bristol, Keynsham or other destinations in the South-west.
Tony Ambrose, 52, a charity worker and spokes-man for MTLS, said: "This has sent out a really strong message to First. Things have to change; they cannot go on as they are."
He said the overcrowding started in December when the number of carriages and frequency of trains were reduced. Mr Ambrose said they would take their fight to Parliament and try to get the franchise for the line changed.
Simon Carpenter, a 52-year-old NHS health worker from Frome, Somerset, said the situation was scandalous. "People are regularly left behind at stations because there's no room to even stand on the trains."
First Great Western said delays and overcrowding were caused by a backlog of maintenance which coincided with the new time-table, but the problems had been solved.
A company spokeswoman had said commuters refusing to buy tickets would face fines or imprisonment. Later, a spokesman said: "All customers were asked to show their tickets. The very small number of people who showed the 'protest' tickets in place of real tickets were allowed to proceed.
"It was impossible to accurately gauge how many people would be involved, so we took the decision to allow people to make their protest. This avoided the potential for confrontation between staff and customers. No one has been reported for fare evasion."