Rail authority chief defends Virgin's costly walk-on fares

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Britain's new rail chief has defended the massive "turn-up-and-go" fares charged by Virgin, the train company which employed him until a month ago.

Richard Bowker, 35, is the former co-chairman of Virgin Trains. On his first day as the £250,0000-a-year chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, he said of Virgin's peak-time walk-on prices: "You have to pay a premium rate for a premium service." Mr Bowker added that he wanted as many people as possible to use the network, but warned that low fares meant overcrowding.

The SRA chairman said it was possible to pick up "astonishing" bargains by planning ahead. "If you want to turn up and pay the kind of fares meant for business people at peak times, it will cost a premium. If you book ahead you can get some astonishing deals."

The standard peak-time return fare from London to Manchester is £153, and the first-class equivalent is £252.20, but Virgin points out that by booking in advance the fare can cost as little as £20.

Anthony Smith, the national director of the Rail Passengers' Council, said: "Passengers are prepared to pay premium rates for a high-quality product. But they are not prepared to pay such fares for the kind of inferior product they have been suffering, both in terms of time-keeping and the actual quality of the trains."

He said Virgin passengers had been travelling in "clapped out" trains for years, paying for improvements that some of them never see.