UNDERSTANDING REVENUE PROTECTION ON SOUTH WEST TRAINS
This note is provided for information. It is for individual passengers to decide what action to take in any particular situation, and the South Hampshire Rail Users' Group cannot accept responsibility for the outcome.
No other train operator operates revenue protection procedures in quite the same way as Stagecoach’s South West Trains (SWT).
There are likely to be two reasons:
(1) Greed. Stagecoach Chairman Brian Souter once told ‘Scotland on Sunday’ that “Ethics are not irrelevant, but some are incompatible with what we have to do because capitalism is based on greed”. Mr Souter and his sister, Stagecoach co-founder Ann Gloag, are major (28%) shareholders in their company. They enjoy 8- and 9-figure bonuses and Mrs Gloag owns two castles. So they have a very personal interest in boosting revenue. Stagecoach is widely regarded as having overbid to keep SWT, and now passengers will presumably have to pay an even heavier price towards maintaining the flow of bonuses and castles.
(2) Contempt. Mr Souter - a Scot - is famed for ridiculing northern and southern English people and former Transport Secretary Sir George Young. He sees franchise bidders as pigs at the trough, symbolism which strongly implies commercial amorality.
Anyone who enters SWT’s stations or trains will now find the experience even more stressful than in the past. As if some of the dearest fares in Europe, severe overcrowding, uncomfortable rolling stock, wrong announcements, cancellations, stop-skipping and being thrown off short of destination for operational convenience were not enough, passengers are now disturbed with continual announcements about having to buy a ticket before boarding or else risking a penalty fare. Posters and the home page of the company’s website project their threats.
The overarching message is that the company will not tolerate fare evasion and passengers must not board a train without a ticket. In reality it can often be difficult to get a ticket, and passengers are liable to be penalised even after they have made all reasonable efforts to buy one.
Revenue Protection Officers can charge ‘penalty fares’ of £20 or twice the single fare to the next station at which the train stops, whichever is the greater. SWT employs disproportionately high numbers compared with other operators. Passengers have 21 days to appeal against a decision to charge a penalty fare. If the issue is not resolved they may be liable to legal proceedings.
Guards who sell tickets are not Revenue Protection Officers. They can charge full single or return fares instead of cheaper available tickets, and can refuse to honour railcards. They cannot charge ‘penalty fares’ as such, though clearly the fares they do charge can be very punitive.
So, from the outset, the manner in which passengers are penalised is a lottery, depending on whether Revenue Protection Officers are on board an individual train.
People who do board a train without a ticket may well not know whether they should purchase their ticket on the train or at their destination station. You are strongly advised to seek the guard and ask for a ticket as quickly as possible after you board the train. You are then in a much stronger position, because any accusation of fare evasion can be seen to be ridiculous. Forget the rosy, customer-friendly, picture SWT paints of itself in its e'motion magazine. If you leave purchase of a ticket until you reach your destination, SWT will almost certainly claim you are trying to avoid payment.
How the Department for Transport decides whether to approve a penalty fares scheme (From the Department’s website)
“Is a penalty fares scheme appropriate?
4.1 When considering a penalty fares scheme, we will first consider whether penalty fares are appropriate, given the type of train service provided and the other ways in which that operator could protect its revenue. A penalty fares scheme is most suited to urban or suburban train services where most stations have ticket facilities, and where busy trains and short intervals between stations make it impossible to check every passenger's ticket between every stop. We may question the need for a penalty fares scheme to cover long-distance services, where a conductor is able to check every passenger, or rural services operated as 'paytrains', where most stations are unstaffed and it is normal practice to buy tickets on board the train. Also, automatic ticket gates are being used at more stations to control entry to the platforms. A penalty fares scheme might not be necessary if all, or almost all, of the stations concerned had these gates.
4.2 As long as we think that a scheme is appropriate in principle, we will assess penalty fares schemes according to the following basic conditions.
a Passengers must be fully informed before they get on a penalty fares train or enter a compulsory ticket area that they need to buy a ticket or permit to travel before starting their journey, and that they may have to pay a penalty if they do not.
b Passengers must be given a sufficient opportunity to buy a ticket or permit to travel before they get on a penalty fares train or enter a compulsory ticket area.
c Passengers must not be made to pay a penalty fare if they were not given the opportunity to buy a ticket or permit to travel before they got on a penalty fares train or entered a compulsory ticket area.
The following paragraphs describe the features which we think a penalty fares scheme must have in order to meet these basic conditions. We have come to this conclusion through consultation with passenger groups and train companies, and through experience of how penalty fares schemes operate, including industry best practice.
Penalty fares trains
4.3 'Penalty fares trains' are the train services for which penalty fares may be charged. A train operator will normally name as penalty fares trains all the trains which it runs within a particular geographical area or on a particular route or routes. A train service does not have to be a penalty fares train for the whole of its journey. It will be a penalty fares train while it is within the specified area or travelling over the specified section of route, and will not be a penalty fares train on the part of its journey outside this area or section of route. In deciding which trains should be penalty fares trains, an operator should take account of the geography of the train service, the ticket facilities available at the stations which will be served and whether the area covered can be easily explained to passengers.
Penalty fares stations
4.4 Passengers on a penalty fares train may only be charged a penalty fare if they got on that train at a station which has been named as a 'penalty fares station' by the relevant penalty fares scheme. At these stations, penalty fares warning notices must be displayed and sufficient ticket facilities provided.
4.5 Operators must normally name each of the stations served by penalty fares trains as a penalty fares station. For example, if all trains within an area bounded by stations x, y and z have been named as penalty fares trains, all stations within that area, including x, y and z, should normally be named as penalty fares stations. However, an operator may not want to include certain stations for a number of reasons. For example, if the station:
* has no ticket facilities as it is unstaffed, and not enough passengers use the station to justify a ticket or 'permit to travel' machine (PERTIS);
* has no ticket facilities as it is unstaffed, and the amount of vandalism means that it is not practical to maintain an operational ticket or 'permit to travel' machine; or
* serves a port or airport and is used by a large number of foreign visitors and people who do not often travel by train, making it undesirable to charge penalty fares to passengers from this station. Operators must make sure that if these stations are not made penalty fares stations, this does not cause confusion or make the scheme difficult to explain to passengers.”
Implications of the Department’s guidance
Within the terms of paragraph 4.4 it appears that passengers cannot legally be charged a penalty fare if they board at stations like Ashurst. These have no booking office, no ticket machine, and no permit to travel machine. Ashurst does, however, have posters and announcements warning of penalty fares for boarding without a ticket.
There are also issues around paragraph 4 (2) (c). When the penalty fares scheme was set up, passengers who had difficulty obtaining a ticket could put any coins into a permit to travel machine and have the amount deducted when they paid the cheapest available fare on the train. A few months ago, SWT ripped out the permit to travel machines. The term “opportunity to buy a ticket” is open to interpretation. If a ticket machine will not accept a credit or debit card, or notes or coins, what opportunity is there to buy a ticket?
To make matters even worse, passengers are often confounded about the bewildering range of available fares. SWT has thought of this scenario too: So their ‘Buying your ticket before you board’ leaflet states “Some people make costly mistakes about ticket types when they travel on our trains… Having an invalid ticket counts as having no ticket at all”. The leaflet does not make a clear distinction between penalty fares and charging full rates, nor does it mention the right of appeal under the penalty fares scheme, though it does mention the threat of imprisonment.
With remarkable cynicism, the leaflet ends “As you can see, we’re doing all we can to take the stress out of buying tickets. And to help you avoid breaking the rules and having to pay the price.”
South West Trains’ response to criticism
SWT claims that it has not changed it policy, but is applying its rules more consistently. This is clearly untrue, and not just because of the ripping out of permit to travel machines. The March-April 2006 issue of their ‘e’motion’ magazine poses the question, “The queues at ticket offices seem to be getting longer. If I can’t buy a ticket, will you issue me with a penalty fare?” Andy Crawford, Revenue Protection Manager, replies: “If you do not purchase a ticket and the ticket office is open or self-service machines are available, then you should seek the guard on the train to buy a ticket as soon as possible, so you are not issued with a penalty fare”. Clearly therefore, passengers were not at that time treated as fare evaders when seeking to purchase tickets on trains.
SWT also claims that their booking offices are normally open at appointed times. One seriously wonders how they gather this information. At Totton the advertised opening time is 05.40. If the office opens at anything like that time it is a cause for comment. A passenger who travels once a week on the 09.01 train often finds the office closed. The ticket machine won’t sell him a ticket with a discount for his senior citizen railcard until 09.00. The doors of the 09.01 are invariably locked 30 seconds before departure, so he has to get a non-discounted ticket from the machine or wait for the next train at 09.51. The company presumably doesn’t care about ripping off older people, and the 09.01 will disappear in this coming December’s major downgrade of SWT services west of Southampton.
Even when booking offices are open, they are often understaffed. One passenger recently found just a single window open at the main booking office at Southampton Central at around 11.15 on a busy midsummer Saturday morning. Passengers in the queue behind her missed their train.
SWT promises more ticket machines but often seems reluctant to provide them. For example, Councillor Angela Graham complained in The Times of 26 June that the company had promised to install additional ticket machines at Earlsfield station but had not done so.
The farce of “discretion”
SWT Managing Director, Stewart Palmer, has been telling MPs that, contrary to passengers’ experiences as reported in the press, guards do still have discretion to sell the cheapest available tickets on board trains when they have had no opportunity to buy a ticket at the station. But why on earth should passengers ever have to pay more because of SWT’s failure to provide facilities at stations?
So how is discretion used in practice?
Although it’s difficult for many normal, decent people to comprehend, SWT doesn’t care a damn about their personal liabilities, such as getting to work on time, or about the effect of stress on their health. Note this gem on the company’s website and in their ‘e-motion’ magazine: “You’re two minutes to departure and running to catch the train. You’ve slept through the alarm, it’s pouring down, your umbrella’s turned inside out in the wind—it’s not a good day. You reach the station out of breath, take one look at the ticket queue and another at your watch. You can’t be late for that meeting. You panic, head straight for the platform and hop on board. It may be tempting to do it at one time or another. “I’ll buy it on the train,” you think. “That’s all right, isn’t it?” Well, no. The National Rail Conditions of Carriage clearly state that all passengers must have a valid ticket or authority to travel for the journey they intend to make, unless a train operating company specifies otherwise. And now South West Trains will be enforcing this more consistently.”
Compare this with what Stagecoach said in its PR document when bidding for the new SWT franchise: “Stagecoach’s success has been built on listening to customers and using their special insight to improve services even further.”
* On 2/07/07, a woman and her student son travelled from Walthamstow to Kingston. The son asked at the start of the journey whether he could top up his Oyster card to pay for the trip and was assured that he could. At Kingston SWT demanded a penalty fare on the basis that Oysters were not yet valid on SWT, even though he produced a receipt to show he had paid. After a very long argument, the passengers insisted that SWT call the police to hear what they had to say. SWT then sold them the proper ticket. No doubt the SWT staff were frightened of being charged with wasting police team. It’s certainly difficult to see what this case had to do with fare evasion.
* RAIL magazine columnist Christian Wolmar writes, in issue 571, of a friend’s experience: “Held up by a queue at the ticket office at Wokingham, his train arrived and he spotted the guard with a portable ticket machine. So my friend approached him and asked if he could buy a ticket. The response from the man from South West Trains was robust. “If you put one foot on that train, I will charge you a £20 penalty fare and then sell you a ticket.” My pal waited for the next train.”
* In ‘Modern Railways’, August 2007 issue, columnist Alan Williams writes of how a SWT ticket machine refused to accept a range of his cards which were working in machines elsewhere. He then had to sort out coins as his train approached, but none of the passengers in the queue which had built up behind him had time to purchase a ticket.
Comments from a barrister – Guardian 30/6/07
“Travel: Be on your guard, warns Richard Colbey, about a policy that could penalise honest travellers. South West Trains has, according to reports, told its guards to impose penalty fares on passengers who tried to buy a ticket at one of its stations, but couldn't because of long queues at windows or ticket machines. Are these penalty fares legally enforceable? Almost certainly not.
A confidential memo, seen last week by The Times newspaper, suggested that South West Trains is planning to introduce a system under which guards are judged according to the amount they collect in penalties. The memo, headed "commercially sensitive, please do not circulate", instructs guards to treat passengers as fare dodgers even if they ask to buy a ticket on the train.
As well as being bad for customers and guards alike, the policy is legally dubious. Rail companies have to rely on the penalty fare rules 2002, made by the then Department of Transport, to levy such charges.
These rules are explicit. A penalty fare may not be charged if there were "no facilities to issue the appropriate ticket". This, at least arguably, means there must have been a window at which there is no queue. In plain English, a person is not available if he is serving a queue. Nor is a machine available if it is in use. SWT says its policy is to sell a ticket within, at most, five minutes of waiting. Although that does not tie in exactly with the concept of "availability".
In an attempt to get around the problem, the train companies have come up with "conditions of carriage". These don't incorporate the rules' wording, but say a penalty fare is payable if there is no window open and no working machine. It is doubtful that a passenger who has bought no ticket, and hence made no contract with the rail company, could be subject to any conditions. The conditions are invalid if they do not follow the DoT's rules.
SWT's website says one of the reasons for imposing penalty fares is to deter those who do not buy a ticket until challenged. But proving the intention to evade, beyond reasonable doubt, would be virtually impossible. A penalty then seems fair, but that is very different from a ticketless passenger seeking out the guard.
Those who couldn't buy a ticket should politely refuse to pay the penalty. The guard is entitled to a name and address and to know where they got on, and will get off. Mentioning paragraph 7.4 of the penalty fare rules is likely to win the argument, at least on the train.
If the guard issues a penalty notice anyway, there is 21 days to appeal to the company. However even if there is no appeal, or the appeal is not allowed, the company is not automatically entitled to its money. It first has to sue in the county court. Judges hearing such claims would not give judgment for the penalty sum unless the company could justify it.
There has been no reported case of a train company suing in this way. The last thing the rail industry would want is a pronouncement by a judge on its levying of penalty fares.
- Richard Colbey is a barrister”
Not fit for humans now?
It is difficult to see how any Government can, in the twenty-first century, fund an unethical private company, from taxpayers’ money, to provide the kind of service illustrated above - especially when governments traditionally stress excellence in public service delivery and listening to public opinion.
What you can do
If you believe that SWT staff want to penalise you when you can demonstrate honest intent, be polite but firm. It may be worth asking for the police to be called. Staff are likely to be apprehensive of charges of wasting police time, and SWT is likely to be reluctant to risk having some of its practices exposed in court.
Write to your MP and state the facts as concisely and clearly as you can. MPs can be contacted at House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA.The South Hampshire Rail Users' Group has alerted MPs in the core South West Trains' operating area about what is happening and has received some sympathetic responses.
Write to the press or contact your local radio or TV station.
Write to the Rail Minister, Rt. Hon.Tom Harris MP, also at the House of Commons.