The card is intended to encourage leisure travel by rail by offering discounts for adults and accompanying children on a wide range of off-peak fares. The range of discounts available, and the price of the card, have varied since that time, but the card has always been valid for a year's unlimited frequency of use.
It can be purchased by any person aged 16 or over from any staffed National Rail station or Rail Appointed Travel Agent, by completing an application form - no photographic identification or other documentation is needed to buy or use the card. It is one of a number of concessionary fare schemes available on the British railway system.
The Network SouthEast brand was introduced to what had been the London & South East sector of British Rail on 10 June 1986. The railcard was then introduced on 29 September 1986, under the name Network Card. It offered a 34% discount on all off-peak fares for journeys wholly within the Network SouthEast area. Tickets valid at peak times, such as Day Returns and Open Returns, were excluded, as were First Class tickets (however, a supplement ticket could be bought to upgrade a discounted Standard Class ticket to First Class at weekends). On weekdays, journeys had to start after 10.00am, but there were no time restrictions at weekends or on Bank Holidays. Up to three adults could accompany the railcard holder and gain the same discount, while up to four accompanying children could travel for a £1.00 flat fare. This version of the railcard could be issued for either one person or two people. On a two-person "joint-holder" ticket, either or both of the named holders could travel - that is, the card was transferable between the two.
The first major change was made as from 28 September 1997. At this time, the name Network Railcard was adopted; the joint-holder option was removed; the price was increased to £20.00; and the First Class supplement facility was discontinued. All other benefits remained the same, however. New ticket stock was introduced with APTIS form number RSP 4599/188 (the Network Card was BR 4599/22 and, after privatisation, RSP 4599/22).
A larger and more controversial change occurred as from 2 June 2002, when the discount level was changed: a minimum adult fare of £10.00 was imposed for weekday journeys, and children now received an 81% discount on the full adult fare (equivalent to a 60% on the full child fare, and subject to a minimum fare of £1.00) instead of the former £1.00 flat fare for all journeys. This meant that on a weekday, holders would receive no discount if the standard adult full fare was £10.00 or less, and a discount of less than 34% on fares between £10.05 and £15.00. Longer journeys for children would also become more expensive. Transport pressure group Transport 2000 and environmental organisation Friends of the Earth condemned the proposals, and Reading East MP Jane Griffiths tabled an Early Day Motion in the British Parliament opposing the changes. This gained the support of 38 other MPs from all major parties. Research commissioned by Transport 2000 indicated that 90% of journeys typically made in the railcard area would no longer gain any discount (as a result of the full adult fare being £10.00 or below), a further 3.5% would attract a discount of less than 34%, and only 6.5% would still be subject to the full 34% discount as before. This reflects the fact that many journeys undertaken in the area are short and "local" in nature, and that the area as a whole is fairly small in size (as the map shows, it does not extend a very long way from London in any direction).
To compensate for the problems and disruption experienced on the railway network between 2000 and 2002, Network Railcards bought in the early months of 2002 (until 18 May 2002) were issued for 15 months for the price of 12.