S East's railcard set to be dropped

DISCOUNTS on rail fares used by more than a million people every year are almost certain to be scrapped in April.

The Network Card, which allows a 34 per cent reduction on off-peak fares on Network SouthEast, will be the latest victim of rail privatisation. A senior member of BR staff has revealed that several of the shadow franchise companies that will replace Network SouthEast in six months have said they do not want to continue the card.

They believe it will be difficult to operate across the different franchise areas and will not be profitable enough. More than 300,000 Network Cards, costing pounds 12, are sold each year. As well as the discount for the holder, up to four children can travel for pounds 1 each and three accompanying adults can also benefit from the reduction.

The Government will be further embarrassed by a confidential internal circular, obtained by the Independent on Sunday, that shows British Rail is being forced by the Transport Secretary, John MacGregor, to introduce a dual fares system on the first rail route for privatisation.

BR last week launched the first shadow franchise group - the Gatwick-Express, which runs from Victoria, London, to Gatwick. From today passengers will be able to buy tickets at different prices, depending on whether the service is with the franchise company or the regional operator.

BR managers believe this will bring substantial price rises and cuts in services when the system is privatised.

A circular has been sent to retail staff in the past week. It says: 'British Rail has been instructed to introduce customer choice of alternative fares on the London-Gatwick route.'

A BR source said that the word 'instructed' had been used to show management did not support the use of a dual fares scheme. BR has never publicly indicated its anger in this way before.

Barry Doe, an independent rail consultant, asked to comment on the circular, said: 'For the first time BR has clearly been instructed to implement ticket changes that it knows will not be in the public interest. It also indicates that John MacGregor has been directly involved, as he is the only person who has the legal powers to instruct BR to do something.'

Meanwhile, the Government has been warned that there could be problems attracting bids from private firms because of delays in obtaining figures for BR running costs.