Rail chief criticised for accepting first-class travel pass

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The Independent Online

The government official responsible for increasing Britain's rail fares enjoys free first-class travel anywhere on the network at the expense of train operators.

The Independent has discovered that Richard Bowker, chairman of the Government's Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), who channels hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into the operators' coffers, has a special "gold pass" which he uses for work and private travel. Mr Bowker, who earns £250,000 a year, decides whether the companies retain their franchises.

The civil service code, written into the terms and conditions of employment of Whitehall employees, says: "Civil servants should not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests or those of others.

"They should not receive benefits of any kind from a third party which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity."

Although Mr Bowker is not a member of the mainstream Civil Service, he is expected to abide by its code of ethics.

He ruled recently that commuter fares in the South-east would go up by one percentage point above the inflation rate. He argued that passengers were not paying enough towards the cost of the railway.

One senior source in the industry said: "It's an outrage that the highest-paid public official on the railways can't put his hand in his pocket for his own fares when he's raising everyone else's."

Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East and a leading backbencher, said: "People will be raising their eyebrows and no doubt suggesting that Mr Bowker hands this pass back so that when he undertakes personal travel he pays the increased fares like everyone else."

Only five other people receive the rail pass, two of whom work for British Transport Police. The three others are the heads of the charities the Railway Benevolent Institution and the Railway Mission, and the head of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, which campaigns for the retention of rural routes.

Tom Winsor, the rail regulator who is responsible for setting the charges train operators pay the infrastructure organisation Network Rail for maintaining the track, turned down a pass. The passes are issued by the Association of Train Operating Companies.

In a statement, Mr Winsor's office said: "The rail regulator considered that he should not receive benefits or favours from the companies he was regulating or whose commercial interests his decisions could affect and declined the offer."

A spokesman for the train drivers' union Aslef, said its general secretary, Mick Rix, had applied for the facility but his request was rejected.

A spokesman for the SRA said that Mr Bowker's free rail travel did not constitute a conflict of interest and did not in any way influence his judgement towards train operators. The cost to businesses was minimal given that it was spread between 25 operators.

The spokesman said: "You would have to be writing for Private Eye to think that was corrupt." The spokesman added that because of the pressures of his job, Mr Bowker did not enjoy much leisure time, but that it was true that he used his card"whenever" he travelled by train. He used it to travel to his country house in Ross-on-Wye at weekends.

A weekend first-class return to Gloucester ­ the nearest station ­ can cost up to £114 depending on the time of travel.

The spokesman for the SRA said that Mr Bowker checked to see if his acceptance of the pass infringed any Whitehall "protocol" or if there might be a legal difficulty. There was considered to be no problem, the spokesman said. He added that Mr Bowker had turned down the offer of a government car and chauffeur because he used London Underground, and wanted to use the rail network whenever possible.