Hundreds of passengers complained to Passenger Focus about their unfair treatment in a “minefield of rules and regulations”, according to a report from Passenger Focus.
Some had forgotten their ticket but still faced fines even though they could produce proof of purchase.
One woman who had her £2 ticket checked on the train still faced an £85 fine when she was unable to produce it at her destination station. And two elderly disabled passengers who had tickets for a specific train boarded an earlier service after one fell over and was in pain.
Passenger Focus said their hope that the train company would be understanding was in vain and they were issued with an unpaid fares notice for £239.
A woman passenger was threatened with prosecution unless she was willing to pay £92 despite having proof of purchase and the return half of her ticket.
Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: “No-one is in favour of fare dodgers. However, passengers deserve a fair hearing. If they have forgotten their railcard, lost one of their tickets but have proof of purchase or have been unable to pick up booked tickets, they should be given a second chance.
“Passengers, when boarding a train, are entering a minefield of rules and regulations, some dating back to Victorian times.”
He went on: “Any form of privatised justice like this must be administered according to clear guidelines, be accountable, give passengers a fair hearing and not assume everyone is guilty. Train companies cannot continue to treat some of their customers like this – ‘one strike and you are out’ is simply not fair.”
Rail Minister Norman Baker said: “Passengers have a right for the rules to be consistently applied across all operators.
“It is worrying if Passenger Focus has found that this is not case. It is in the interests of train operating companies that passengers are confident in what they are buying.”
Last night A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said: “We recognise the concerns raised by the report and are already working on an industry-wide code of practice that will set out how operators deal with fare dodgers and where discretion can be shown for passengers who have made an honest mistake.
“Train companies need to take a firm but fair approach to fare dodging because unfortunately there will always be people who try to get away without paying.
The overwhelming majority of the three million people who travel by train every day get the right ticket for their journey with no problems whatsoever.”