Consultation: Changes to the Rail Penalty Fares appeals process
Response on behalf of the South Hampshire Rail Users' Group
I attach a response on behalf of the South Hampshire Rail Users' Group.
We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to the consultation, and trawled for comments through Issue 146 of our newsletter which was placed on our website: www.shrug.info.
We are an 'open' group, accessible through our website, Hampshire County Council's website, and the websites of various stakeholder organisations. We were originally founded over 20 years ago by a group of South Hampshire-Waterloo commuters but now operate mainly by e'mail. We specialise in evidence-based research. Our history of South West Trains (available on our website) is a substantial record of the views of passengers, Ministers, the press and representative organisations across two decades.
In passing, it is disappointing that there seems to have been little progress on requiring train operators to treat passengers fairly and reasonably since the previous consultation on penalty fares in 2010.
Revenue protection problems are unsurprising:
* Passengers numbers have soared whilst the fares structure has become considerably more complex, and we have an increasing immigrant population for whom the complexity is particularly prone to be problematic.
* Concurrently, taking the example of South West Trains, once-busy travel centres have largely been eliminated. Passengers with queries therefore cause long delays at booking offices. Booking office windows are often closed at busy times. SWT's website has repeatedly reported booking offices as closed during opening hours even at major stations such at Woking, Winchester, Portsmouth & Southsea and Southampton Central.
* The 'dodgy excuses' listed by ATOC are a distraction from the real issues. The excuses are quite comical and likely to have been given by less-bright people who have been caught without a ticket either because they are intent on fare avoidance, or because they have been genuinely perplexed when left to rely on ticket machines.
* Rail travel is very different from bus travel. In most parts of the country people can turn up at a bus stop, board the bus, and pay the driver or swipe a card. Ticket machines at stations can be awkward use, and may reject perfectly good coinage or bank cards. Oyster/smart card readers may not respond to a card. Queues of muttering fellow passengers can quickly build up. On the bus, the driver or conductor will witness card problems. At station machines, there is no witness, and passengers who board without a ticket are often not believed when they explain the problem.
* On SWT stations, notices tell passengers to use a help point or approach the guard before boarding if there are no ticket vending facilities available. As Lord Adonis discovered at Southampton Central, help points are often unattended. Finding a guard can be difficult where a long train pulls into a busy platform. Some SWT guards are not 'commercial guards' and cannot sell tickets. In addition, it is often impossible to pass through crammed trains, so a penalty fare can be an additional operator perk from overcrowding.
* For people unfamiliar with rail travel there are a host of difficulties, especially when they had not planned to use rail (for example car breaks down, or they find a bus service has recently been withdrawn). New rail users at unstaffed stations are expected to understand a range a range of ticket types and conditions, the difference between railcards and travelcards, and procedural obligations such as looking for warning posters.
* It is instructive to examine TOCs' Twitter accounts. In the case of SWT, three reasons given by people without a valid ticket appear paramount:
- difficulty understanding the fares system or using ticket issuing or reading equipment as above;
- human error such as forgetting to carry a railcard (this will come to light in front of booking clerks but not in front ticket machines); or expecting the privatised railways to operate the criterion of 'reasonableness' (a mainstay of non-privatised public services), for example by allowing people to use first class accommodation when standard accommodation (which has seen space standards severely reduced on SWT) is crammed. High-profile examples of human error have included George Osborne travelling in first class with a standard ticket, and actor Richard Wilson leaving his railcard at home.
- need to get somewhere quickly. Society relies on people being in the right place at the right time, yet SWT expects passengers to queue for tickets for 20 minutes and upwards. In addition, trains miss stops and leave passengers standing on stations at the drop of hat. It's not unusual for people to be carried past their stop for operational convenience and then waste perhaps an hour through having to travel back. A high profile passenger who suffered a penalty fare, on Thameslink, was Cherie Blair who needed to get to work urgently and did not join a ticket machine queue before boarding.
ATOC would do well to consider these situations rather than focus on 'joke' excuses. Its failure to do so suggests a bad attitude, and specifically lack of empathy, towards the passengers whom the TOCs always claim to put at the centre of everything they do.
Moving on to how the penalty fares system has developed, it was initially considered that passengers should receive the safeguard of permit to travel machines. Is there any data on the rise of penalty fares after these machines were largely removed?
It is interesting how ATOC outlines all the benefits for passengers which the lost £240m would buy, in terms of station improvements and new trains:
- Announcements of improvements by TOCs, often funded by taxpayers, have routinely included more ticket machines, even though relying on machines rather than booking staff can be an obstacle to passengers in getting the correct ticket.
- Lifts are a major call on investment, yet disabled people often can't use them because a station is left unstaffed. Brentford became notorious for its new lifts being accessible only for short daily periods.
- Ticket barriers get listed as an improvement, yet have caused serious dangers at London Bridge, whilst a woman has received thousands in compensation for being crushed in a barrier at Waterloo.
- Over £100m of the missing £240m can be matched by the profit the TOCs make at passengers' expense from Network Rail's failures. The Evening Standard of 16.9.2013 reported that it paid them £136m in 2012-13 for infrastructure problems which caused services to be late or cancelled, whilst the companies paid out less than £30m in ticket refunds to passengers.
- So far as we know, there are no available figures on the further amounts lost to passengers who face obstacles in getting the cheapest tickets. Sustained anecdotal evidence, as in Barry Doe's articles in RAIL magazine, suggest that the amounts are likely to be considerable.
- What too of the money wasted by train operators? Analysts considered that Stagecoach got a generous first settlement on SWT yet it collapsed the timetable by disposing of drivers and middle managers. Its continued failure led to its second franchise being reduced from 20 years to three and its being told to concentrate on recovering performance (Stephen Byers, Official Record 21.5.2002). Agreed action to develop longer platforms at Waterloo and 60 other stations between 2002 and 2005 to accommodate more 10-car trains (SRA's Strategic Plan of January 2002) was delayed by over 10 years. So was SWT's much-publicised proposal to ‘gold-plate’ track in the London area.
- The Telegraph of 23.9.2006 commented that this second franchise was the deal which “pulled the company out of reverse gear, since when the shares have trebled in value. It turned out to be a licence to print money.” Stagecoach's 2014 Annual Report reveals that nine directors hold 150m shares, which are worth over half a billion pounds. Founders Brian Souter and Ann Gloag are jointly worth £1 billion.
Christian Wolmar commented in RAIL of 11.10.2006 that “The interim three-year arrangement agreed by Richard Bowker at the SRA in 2002 …was far too generous to Stagecoach. Under that contract, Stagecoach has been making super-profits at the expense of passengers and the taxpayer, netting a fabulous £58.9 million in the last year on turnover of around £500 million. That’s 12% of turnover. As I mentioned in my book, ‘On the Wrong Line’, a senior Stagecoach executive told me privately that the SRA had been a pushover and the company had been delighted by the deal.”
Do you agree with the proposal to implement new rules on 'stopping the clock' during the penalty fares appeals process?
Yes. The behaviour of operators varies but, in the case of South West Trains, the objective often appears to be to frighten passengers into paying up without appeal. South West Trains operates a policy of severe intimidation, both by linking penalty fares and criminal prosecutions, and by sidestepping the penalty fares system and threatening criminal prosecutions. Prosecution may appear fairer, because the court will arbitrate, but the real objective appears to be to scare passengers into handing over large sums of money prior to a hearing.
There are also questions around the costs to public funds of burdening the courts with comparatively trivial issues, not to mention the costs to passengers who seek legal representation in the face of SWT's threats. In the light of such disproportionate behaviour, the costs of 'stopping the clock' should not be an issue. Note the following cases in which passengers have approached our Group:
* In October 2008, a commuter arrived at Southampton Central with his bike and found the gates unattended (a common problem), contrary to legal requirements. He therefore opened the manual gate, to avoid missing his train to work. Staff appeared and he politely showed his valid season ticket, but was given a £55 penalty.
He refused to pay, so was prosecuted and threatened with a £1,000 fine, 3 months in prison or both. A criminal record would have prevented him from continuing his charitable work with vulnerable serving and former service men and women.
In April, the Court directed SWT to release CCTV images to the passenger, along with details of the gate and its signage. SWT sent him just a polaroid image of the gates and confirmed in writing that they had looked at the CCTV images and destroyed them.
In July, the passenger had to come back from holiday in Spain to attend court. SWT pulled out all the stops, producing three members of staff to give evidence against him.
The passenger considers that their evidence was partly false. The court found him not guilty, said the case should never have been brought, and admonished SWT for wasting court time.
* In January 2009, a woman on crutches made a 5-mile journey to Axminster station to buy a ticket to travel to Basingstoke the next day. She found the ticket office closed during opening hours (another common problem), so had to use the ticket machine. The screen was difficult to read because of glare from the sun (another common problem). She therefore inadvertently obtained a ticket dated the day of purchase rather than the day of travel.
The train guard clipped her ticket without query. At Basingstoke, the barrier rejected it. A member of staff took her details but said it was a common situation which would probably be overlooked. SWT’s prosecutions department then wrote saying they had intended to take her to court, which could lead to a £1,000 fine, 3 months in prison, or both. However, as it was a first offence, and taking her mitigation into account, they would agree to a Caution with Applied Costs: £45 operational costs for dealing with the incident; £10 for writing the letter; and £29.40 for the fare avoided: a total of £84.40 to pay within 14 days.
The woman replied that she and her husband were known to the previous Managing and Commercial Directors of SWT. Her husband had arranged a ceremony for one of the Wessex Electric trains to be named “Bournemouth Orchestras”, and the couple had hosted a celebratory Promenade Concert at the Albert Hall on behalf of SWT. She felt the penalty fare was completely unjustified and would opt for the case to go to court. SWT staff from Axminster would be prepared to give evidence in court on her behalf and one had said that SWT would rather proceed than admit a mistake.
This drew the response:
“Please allow me to inform you that any member of Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited staff from Axminster station who is prepared to attend court on your behalf must do so in their own time. If they intend to appear during their allocated working hours an arrangement for compensation to reimburse the costs of staff and their replacements must be made between Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited and you; before the court date.
……With regard to your comment allegedly made by a member of staff at Axminster station, that ‘South West Trains would rather proceed than admit a mistake’, I find such an accusation to be a most scurrilous, malicious and disloyal statement, which I take personally, and I am in contact with the Area Manager for the West of England to ensure it is investigated as soon as possible”.
The writer ended by saying that “I have no doubt that a prosecution would have a devastating effect on you and I am therefore prepared to allow the offer of a Conditional Caution to stand until 12.00hrs, 31 July 2009”. Overall, this response recalls Christian Wolmar’s book ‘Stagecoach’ in which he detects, “an arrogance and deep conviction that the company is right and everyone else is wrong.” Dismissing reasonable criticism out of hand, sometimes in one sentence, is a familiar Stagecoach characteristic.
After pressure from the Axminster station manager, SWT dropped the case, but on the basis that the passenger had been on crutches, rather than because their action had been totally outrageous.
* A passenger who used a machine at Southampton Airport Parkway in extreme haste because his train was coming, inadvertently bought a child ticket to Winchester, instead of an adult ticket to Southampton using his Young Person’s Railcard. As his employer was to reimburse the cost, there was no incentive to cheat. He was nonetheless asked to pay £300 to avoid prosecution, because he had paid 5 pence too little. Outside the court, the prosecutor was rude and intimidating, and asked the defendant to pay £150 for SWT to withdraw the case. It became clear in court that the prosecutor hadn’t bothered to read preceding correspondence, and the magistrates repeatedly admonished him for asking irrelevant questions and bullying. They found “absolutely no evidence” that the passenger had tried to avoid paying his fare.
Whilst it SWT enthusiastically prosecutes its passengers, it appears less committed to ensuring that prosecutions are conducted properly. This may be because it realizes there is no evidence of fare avoidance, and relies on pre-trial intimidation, as above, to extract large sums of money. Bournemouth Magistrates’ Court made SWT withdraw NINE prosecutions after it had failed to serve case details for the second hearing in a row. The magistrate commented that he despaired. (Source: Dorset Evening Echo, 5.10.2012)
We are not suggesting that all train operators are as unprofessional, inhuman, and rapacious as Stagecoach, but these cases alarmingly illustrate the huge scope for abuse of passengers under both penalty fares and criminal sanctions.
Do you agree with the proposal to establish the independence of all penalty fares appeals bodies?
Yes. One problem of using a civil procedure instead of the courts is that a lower level of proof is required. There is plenty of evidence that people who choose to go to court win their cases, particularly if they can afford legal representation. If penalty fares were a criminal issue, the current processes would probably fall for judicial review as contrary to natural justice. The following article by Christian Wolmar seems relevant:
"It is time that the train companies took on board the fact that they are, for better or worse, in the private sector. The irony is that in many respects they behave like the old state company which they replaced, and use the rules devised to protect British Rail to their advantage.
A reader, Paul Davies wrote to me recently about his son, Alex, who was not a frequent rail user. Nor after the bad experience he had is he ever likely to be. Alex made the mistake of sitting in a first class seat on a Southern train. They are, in fact, exactly the same as all other seats, though there is a door that says First Class and anti-macassars with the same message. Rather than just saying, ‘sonny you’ve made a mistake’, the conductor slapped a £51 penalty charge on him.
His father got rather exercised about this, and started investigating. He tried to appeal the ticket but that was rejected on the grounds that there were seats in standard available on that train. No proper consideration of his son’s circumstances were taken into account, though the train company did accept that it was an honest mistake and not an attempt to fare dodge.
However, what got Mr Davies really angry was the discovery that the appeal body, the Independent Penalty Fare Appeals Service, is not, as its name suggests, ‘independent’ but rather run by the SouthEastern train operator which is owned by the same company, Govia, as Southern. The chairman of the appeals panel is Charles Horton, the boss of SouthEastern.
Now Mr Horton is an experienced and widely respected railway manager but Mr Davies and other passengers are not to know this. The Department for Transport tried to justify this arrangement by saying appeals are dealt with according to a set of criteria that it has laid down but these are not available publicly. The Department also stresses that IPFAS is separate organisation from the train company.
The key point, however, is none of this looks good. Why should railway organisations run these appeal bodies (there is another one, too)? It is simply inappropriate. Why, too, are their appeals procedures not more transparent and the basis of decisions clearly set out? And why do utterly unaccountable as demonstrated by, rather amusingly, when Mr Davies tried to get more information on IPFAS. He dialled its premium line service, pressed option 4 for ‘more information’ only to get a recorded message that ‘no more information is available’. You couldn’t make it up.
Mr Davies makes an important point when he says: ‘When penalty fares were introduced they reversed the burden of proof, so people were guilty unless they could prove otherwise. This was a significant and controversial reversal of what has become known as Clause 29 in Magna Carta. This legislative change was so significant that massive safeguards were introduced and a totally independent penalty fares appeals service, IPFAS, was introduced.’ It now transpires, of course, that the independent service is nothing of the sort.
This is all part of a wider issued of the accountability of the train companies. Passenger Focus produced an excellent report, Ticket to Ride, last May in which it set out a number of examples where clearly the train companies had acted as policeman, judge, jury and jailor. When the railways were owned by the state, that was more – but not totally – acceptable as British Rail was effectively protecting the interests of taxpayers.
Passenger Focus pointed out that the companies have, under legislation, the right to impose penalties if its bye-laws are breached – and no matter what excuses are given, the company can impose sanctions, a process known as ‘strict liability’. Therefore, for example, simply not having your railcard with you (as happened famously to Richard ‘one foot in the grave’ Wilson) means you have breached the rules, even if you can prove later that you have a valid one. That is why, too, there is this licensed theft of charging people the whole fare if they happen to be travelling on the wrong train.
The Passenger Focus report outlined some appalling cases, such as a chap who was unable to get his tickets out of a machine due to a malfunction, was issued with an unpaid fare notice (UFN, requiring the full peak time fare) which it refused to rescind even when at his destination he was able to print out the tickets. The company said that he had the obligation to produce a ticket and as he did not, it issued the UFN and refused to rescind it despite the machine being broken.
Private companies are not extensions of government and should not have the right to impose criminal sanctions without any recourse to a genuinely independent appeal procedures. No other private companies in the land can do that. The Association of Train Operating Companies’ response to Passenger Focus’s report would have done Judge Jeffreys proud: ‘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.’ In other words, our passengers are a bunch of thieving scallywags who deserve what they get.
However, ATOC has promised that it is ‘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’. Clearly that cannot come too soon – and moreover, the industry should make sure that it has a clear impartial procedure to deal with disputes, rather than the sham of IPFAS."
Revenue Protection Officers on the worst TOCs have become to rail passengers what cowboy clampers are to motorists: automatons which take money without listening to reasonable arguments. In the case of South West Trains, the evidence could not be more robust. After Stagecoach bid £600m more than its rivals for a third franchise term, it issued a leaflet 'Buying your ticket before you board' which cynically stated: “We’ve produced a leaflet to help you make sure you don’t get caught out by accident and have to face the consequences…. 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 Times published the following article by Ben Webster, their Transport Correspondent:
"Britain’s biggest train company has ordered its guards to stop showing any discretion to passengers who are unable to buy tickets before boarding because of long queues at stations.
South West Trains (SWT) is forcing thousands of passengers to pay penalties, even though it admits that it does not have enough ticket machines and regularly breaches its commitment to keep no one waiting more than five minutes to buy a ticket.
It has told its guards not to accept any explanation from passengers and to charge the maximum peak fare, which is often double the normal fare. Passengers travelling from London to Weymouth in Dorset are being charged £82 on board for a ticket that would have cost £35 if they had bought it at the station. They could be liable for an additional £20 penalty, or prosecuted, for fare evasion. SWT has angered passengers in the past month by raising off-peak fares by 20 per cent.
Denis Fryer, of the South Hampshire Rail Users Group, said that SWT was profiting from its own failure to provide enough facilities for buying tickets. He said: “Passengers are being treated like fare-dodgers even when they have made a genuine effort to buy a ticket in advance. SWT is being greedy and unreasonable, especially because the problem is often its own failure to staff ticket offices properly.”
One train guard told The Times that he had been reprimanded by his manager for showing leniency to passengers who had clearly attempted to buy a ticket before boarding. “Even when people are completely honest and come up to us on the train to buy a ticket, we have to charge them the maximum fare,” he said. SWT admitted that it had failed to keep pace with the growth in demand for rail travel. The company said that it had ordered another 194 ticket machines for its network, although a spokeswoman said that the machines would not all be installed until September next year.
Passengers who waited longer than five minutes and had to buy a more expensive ticket on board “would have the option of contacting our customer relations department, who will look at each case individually”.
Passenger Focus, the Government-funded rail passenger watchdog, said that it was investigating complaints about penalties imposed by SWT. It said that it had complained to the company about its failure to meet its commitment on queuing time.
The company signed a new franchise last year under which it agreed to pay the Government £1.2 billion over 10 years. The company said it was being forced to find new ways of raising revenue to pay that sum."
‘RAIL’ editor Nigel Harris argued in Issue 569 that SWT was damaging the reputation of the rail industry as a whole: “Maybe it’s because many railway people don’t actually pay fares – or not in full – especially very senior managers. But no-one likes to feel ripped-off and once you offend the British sense of fair play, you’re in trouble. Politicians forget this too but a bloody nose at election time usually reminds them. So, I watched in despair in mid-June as The Times ‘exposed’ South West Trains’ pre-meditated policy to “… fleece its passengers.” The harsh words “sharp practice”, and “profiteering” were used. SWT was “the unacceptable face of rail privatisation.” This is all enormously damaging – not just for Stagecoach, but the whole industry. RAIL was critical of SWT’s recent moves to manipulate the peak and impose 20% increases on off-peak fares and The Times was equally unimpressed. SWT’s protests about easing the post-peak rush were unconvincing: this is all about maximising revenues.”
Advantages for passengers from the proposed change are clearcut. There could well be savings for the industry because the incentive for cowboy behaviour would be much reduced and many fewer cases pursued.
Do you agree with the implementation of a third stage appeal in the appeals process?
Yes. A more thorough scrutiny of appeals would help discourage the most aggressive companies from pursuing cases unreasonably. It would also be sensible to have a de minimis, so that the appeals system is not clogged by penalty fares being pursued for derisory amounts. On SWT, for example, off-peak day return fares for journeys outside the London suburban area have been increased so that they are generally about 10p less than the peak return. Some anytime day return fares with off-peak fares in brackets: Southampton-Basingstoke £14.70 (£14.60); Southampton-Bournemouth £14.40 (£14.30); Southampton-Ryde Esplanade £30.60 (£30.50); Southampton-Weymouth £27.00 (£26.80). A 10p-20p saving will mean little to most passengers but opens the opportunity for penalty fares to be levied where a passenger mistakenly boards a peak train with an off-peak ticket.
It also seems unreasonable to charge a penalty fare where a passenger's mistake does not result in any loss to a company. Example: A young couple travelling with two £6.00 Megatrain tickets from Waterloo to Southampton decided to alight at Eastleigh, 5.75 miles short of their booked destination. For this infringement of Stagecoach’s spurious rules, they were surcharged £114.
How would the industry establish and fund a third stage appeal?
It would be more appropriate for government to establish the entire appeals body to help ensure its genuine independence. DfT has always taken the line that railways are a public service, privately delivered. Government appoints TOCs so should logically appoint the independent appeals body. The industry could achieve substantial savings by not pursuing unreasonable cases and by having a de minimis, as suggested in our response to Question 3.
Other measures which could reduce the penalty fare workload and its costs are re-introducing permit to travel machines at all stations where penalty fares are operated, and requiring non-commercial guards (who cannot issue tickets) to provide passengers with a covering note where they have tried to buy a ticket.
More generally, given the lower level of proof required for the imposition of civil/administrative sanctions, there should be a presumption in favour of giving passengers the benefit of the doubt, for example because of the complex fares systems and imperfect ticket issuing equipment (machines not accepting particular coins or cards etc).
It is probably difficult for Ministers and DfT officials who do not use the worst companies' services to realise how mean-minded TOCs can be. Note the following e'mail which we received:
"At approximately midday today (29 January 2015) I was alerted by a fellow male passenger on the London-bound platform at Havant, of a teenage female passenger being given grief by two SWT ticket inspectors.
From what I gathered, It sounds like this girl had simply not been able to buy, or had bought the wrong ticket by mistake, and the SWT revenue-protection staff simply decided to treat her as a fare dodger, which she wasn't. As a result the poor girl was in tears.
Having read your website over the past few years, I've seen just how bad SWT are and have been since 1996, and why a new operator is desperately needed for the London Waterloo-South Western train franchise.
In future I will at least be able to use Southern and Southeastern trains' services (I currently live in Sussex, and hoping to move to Kent). But for passengers who have no choice but to use South West Trains' Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth/Poole and Weymouth to London Waterloo trains, I sympathise with their plight.
Sorry for the very long e'mail, but with my own interest in all things railways, plus how service on the routes mentioned above have gone from amongst the best on the old Southern Region under BR-Network SouthEast, to the worst under SWT, I wanted to express my opinion on the problems caused by Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd."
The following Twitter conversations, from SWT's website are also significant. In one case a woman was made to leave a train when she had a valid ticket but staff did not know the rules:
* I've a travel card on my Oyster. When I arrived at Barnes Bridge, none of my travel cards, including previous ones were showing up. It's never happened since or previously. It was a problem with your system as TfL could see all of my previous travel cards. [SWT response: Have you considered card clash? Something may be wiping data from your Oyster Card in your purse?] Card clash? Have you considered rude, incompetent staff? I received a letter today [5 January] dated 22nd December stating I now owe £90 as no payment received and I need to pay within 14 days of date of letter. Can you please send details for someone who will sort? [SWT response: I appreciate your comments, however this is outside our remit. Please contact IRCAS directly here.] I did appeal, but IRCAS claimed they received my letter late so fine increased to £55. Now I have a £90 fine hanging over me. I have paid £55 over the phone today begrudgingly but have been advised I risk you taking me to court.
* Just been told I can't use my railcard, it's in date but I'm just apparently not allowed to use it. Good one SWT. I was paying at the ticket machine, and it wouldn't work, so I asked to pay on the train (I approached the guard) and explained what happened, and her words were, "You can't use your railcard on the train". My response was that the ticket machine wasn't working, and she said "Tough". Never dealt with such a rude member of staff from SWT.
* Should be ashamed of yourselves. Prosecuting my girlfriend (a single mum) because her card didn't work in your ticket machine and no guard on train. She fully expected the guard to walk through and waited for him. [SWT response: If you don't have a ticket and board a train the onus is on you to find the guard and not wait for them to come to you.] She was getting her expenses paid for by work so she had NO REASON to fare jump. This is a genuine misunderstanding that common sense and good customer service could and SHOULD have avoided. I sincerely hope you apply that common sense now and enter into a dialogue with her before you waste a court's time! [SWT response: You can appeal the penalty fare at http://ircas.co.uk.] She doesn't HAVE a penalty notice. They took her details and she heard nothing for 3 months then got a COURT SUMMONS today!! The ircas website doesn't volunteer their number so that's very helpful. I'm curious - is it your usual process to tell someone you WON'T issue them a penalty then scare them with a court summons later? [SWT response: I'm not aware of the penalty fare process. I would have imagined a penalty fare comes first. Perhaps it was lost in the post.]
* A member of your staff refused to recognise a simple mistake which was made - I was told to get off at a station I don't know and to find a cash point - he accused me of lying and I was left in the middle of nowhere, with no phone service and no idea how I could get home. I spend a lot of money on trains and don't expect to be patronised and belittled by you're staff. I'm 17 years old, got 3 big bags and was made to stand in the cold an hour from home because your guard was being picky. [SWT response: Sorry to hear this. Where are you now? Are you stranded, or have you resumed your journey?] I have just got home, after an hour of walking around trying to find a cash point and trying to get hold of someone to pick me up.
* My wife was just kicked off a train using a ticket specifically referenced in the booking confirmation. There was an announcement that the ticket type we purchased was not valid, despite it being the exact train we booked. [SWT response: Super off-peaks are not valid if you started your journey at Waterloo, but are in this case as she started back at Hull. Sorry she was ejected, please keep the tickets and contact our Customer Relations team about this.]
* Maybe I'm missing something but a single fare is £16.70. So how would the fine come to £300 ???? [SWT response: You'll be fined the most expensive ticket (first class) plus the penalty fare for this route.
* Fined for having a ticket for the 5th and not the 6th, which is strange because I didn't ask for a ticket for the 5th.
* Earlier tweets saying penalty fares are fines are incorrect and a lie. [SWT response: Apologies for the earlier reference to fines. Our mistake. We know they are penalty fares.]
* Great customer Service: "Stand in first class and you will be fined - don't use it as an overflow", SWT guard - 8am train at Whitton. [SWT response: The guard is correct, you do need a first class ticket to be in first class. But sorry if they came across as brusque.] Since you reintroduced two first class compartments - dozens often unable to board 8am train -picture from Wednesday.
* SWT fining me 80 quid for standing in first class when two trains had been cancelled and there was no space. Outrageous.
* I honestly told a guard at Waterloo I wanted to buy a ticket - I was then fined and now I have a £100 penalty to pay. It was only self service and I couldn't work out how to buy an open return and many times I have wrongly bought a day return and I can't get a refund so I thought the best idea would be to buy one on the train. [SWT response: If you wish to appeal there are contact details on the penalty fare. You should let them know the information you have told me.] I have and they've rejected it and slapped on a £70 admin fee. It's disgusting.
* I don't like the doors being forced open whilst I'm having a piss. [SWT response: It is a place where fare evaders like to hide, unfortunately.]
* Please explain policy. Bought ticket on train as usual because machine isn't cheapest fare with railcard, and got warning of penalty fare after paying. [SWT response: It is only acceptable to do so when there are zero ticket purchasing facilities at stations.]
The last example illustrates the strange disparity that Government advises people to shop around for the cheapest energy suppliers, yet tolerates TOCs requiring passengers to buy a ticket where it is not the cheapest available.
Do you agree with the proposal to strengthen DfT oversight on the penalty fares and appeals process?
Yes. It is very clear from travelling around the country that passengers who fall foul of the multitude of rules are treated with very different levels of understanding. We therefore suspect that there will be considerable disparity about the scale of penalty fares issued.
South West Trains is particularly suspect as it has demonstrated both secrecy and evasiveness about its penalty fares operations. On 14.2.2013 BBC South Today reported the big numbers of penalty fares that Southern and First Great Western had provided, whereas South West Trains refused to supply information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
A handful of stakeholders, including myself, were invited to the Winchester meeting of SWT's Passengers Panel on 15.2.2011. There was trenchant criticism from participants about the way SWT treats its passengers. Despite a hugely complex fares system, SWT apparently preferred to increase revenue by unreasonably applying penalty fares rather than by attracting more passengers through advertising. People whose first language was not English were noted as being particularly susceptible to SWT bullying.
A case was quoted of a passenger who arrived at Swanwick station just in time to board a Southern train. The guard said he could board and pay at the barriers at Southampton Central. SWT then imposed a penalty fare. Participants saw the incident as highlighting the friendlier approach of Southern, which encouraged people to use trains.
One participant remarked that the employment of extra commercial guards could pay for itself through increased fare collection; guards were the company’s ambassadors who could help build good customer relations. The only reference to this meeting on the Panel’s website was in the report of its May 2011 meeting: “At the previous Stakeholders’ meeting that the Panel held in Winchester it quickly became clear that the attitude of staff on the railway was a big factor in determining their level of satisfaction. As one visitor put it “your guards are truly the company’s ambassadors”.
We would suggest that DfT oversight should include scrutiny of the bullying of perceived soft targets, such as children, young women travelling alone, and persons whose first language is clearly not English, and that TOCs should be required to keep relevant records to facilitate this - a simple tick box system should suffice.
How frequently should audits take place?
We suggest they should at least be conducted annually, to check whether TOCs are changing course (remembering how SWT's revenue protection became even more savage after Stagecoach over-bid for its third franchise.) Audits are a perfectly normal function of business, and TOCs should be expected to bear the costs themselves.
Do you agree with the proposals to remove inappropriate threats of criminal sanctions from penalty fare reminder letters?
Yes. It seems strange that a government department should ask such a question. Are you suggesting that it could ever be right for TOCs to be free to bully and intimidate passengers with threats which have no basis in law? If companies are profiting by inappropriate behaviour, the financial impact of behaving appropriately should not be cushioned.
In some of our examples above, it is clear that SWT routinely uses fear of the courts to intimidate and bully. Its interesting to see Twitter queries on what possible need there can be for groups of perhaps 7-9 revenue protection officers and British Transport Police officers to check tickets. In March this year, SWT even posted a picture of 5 police officers and 2 revenue support officers purportedly looking for 'various offences'. It appears that BTP may be seriously overstaffed.
Do you have any additional comments or suggestions that you believe the Government should consider when examining potential changes to the penalty fares system?
We have appended comments and suggestions to our basic replies to the preceding questions. These particularly refer to Stagecoach SWT, which is the principal operator in our area. There seems to be a much broader issue here. Pollution is killing people, but increasingly more people are on the move. The government has accepted the need for a considerable programme of investment in rail but not, apparently, that rail travel should be welcoming. Remember the positive difference that the army of ambassadors made to the Olympic Games? That spirit operates elsewhere. For example, travel by bus in the South Hampshire area is generally an agreeable experience, with drivers helpful and friendly.
Travel by train from a SWT station can be a miserable affair, with ill-trained staff challenging passengers at every opportunity. I was recently admonished for showing a barrier attendant my Southern Daysave ticket rather than putting it through the gate at Southampton Central, even though I explained politely that these ranger-type tickets have never worked SWT gates. And as soon as Southern started issuing these tickets in two parts (outward and return), I was not allowed through the barrier on my return to Southampton until I had produced the outward as well as the return ticket. Suppose I had innocently discarded the outward half? A penalty fare out of my pension perhaps?
The fact is that Stagecoach remains the aggressive operator exposed in the World in Action's "Cowboy Country" programme in 1996. The High Court refused to block transmission on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest to do so. Twenty years later Government has not acquired the circumspection of the judiciary in this respect. A system which dampened SWT's zeal for outrageous bullying and intimidation of confused or vulnerable passengers would therefore seem long overdue.
Stagecoach may be an extreme case. Founder Brian Souter told Scotland on Sunday that "ethics are not irrelevant but some are incapable with what we have to do because capitalism is based on greed". Turning from ethics to empathy, he recently caused disgust by incorporating a long and cruel joke about mentally disabled people in a speech. Government should ensure that such people are not left in charge of public services, where they can militate against the evolution of a more decent society.
Other operators have demonstrated varying degrees of reasonableness, but incidents have arisen where it is tempting to wonder if they have taken the attitude that "if Stagecoach can get away with it, why shouldn't we?"
There is a fundamental need to move on from the "every passenger is a criminal" attitude of SWT. Interestingly, replies to tweeters on SWT's website take the line that revenue protection officers are deployed strategically in areas where fare evasion is believed to take place. This suggests that fares could be collected by a few strategically deployed ticket clerks, and the costs of operating penalty fares could be avoided, representing a double win for the industry. A roving ticket clerk body could also be deployed at stations where, for example, staff are sick, or long queues are known to form. That would leave serious cases, such as using two season tickets for either end of a commute, for the courts.
Such a change should improve relations between passengers and operators and could encourage rail travel, and hence profitability. As the Guardian of 22.5.2012 confirms, Passenger Focus has long been arguing for this kind of approach:
"Passenger Focus says it has received 400 complaints this year from rail passengers who say they have been unjustly fined or pursued through the courts. Train companies are making passengers pay disproportionate penalties for having the wrong ticket and criminalising people who have no intention of dodging fares, a government watchdog has warned.
According to Passenger Focus, draconian enforcement by revenue collectors is putting people who make an innocent mistake into the same group as those who deliberately avoid paying. Mike Hewitson, head of policy at the government-funded consumer body for the railways, said: "If you set out to not pay deliberately you deserve what you get; we all pay for people who fare dodge. But too many innocent people are being scooped up into the net. And the powers are totally out of proportion to the offence."
The watchdog says it has received 400 complaints this year from passengers who say they have been unjustly fined or even pursued through the courts for forgetting railcards, losing tickets they could prove they had purchased or travelling on the wrong train. Hewitson said: "Coupled with the fact we have a fares structure that doesn't make it easy to get it right, you ought to have a procedure in place that allows a little discretion."
It believes there is a greater, more willing use of the powers train operators have to impose penalties, which used to be employed only in cases of deliberate or repeated attempts to defraud.Examples collected by Passenger Focus include a man who forgot to print his tickets but was advised to board by the train conductor on showing his email confirmation, yet subsequently received a court summons for not having a valid ticket. A female passenger who forgot to bring the railcard she used to reduce a £14 advance fare to under £10 and was issued a penalty fare for £260 (twice the most expensive peak fare for that journey), despite being able to prove she did have a railcard.
Two elderly, disabled passengers who travelled home on an earlier train than booked after an accident, believing the train operator would understand their circumstances, were issued with a notice for £239 unpaid fares.
Passenger Focus said a growing proportion of correspondence, 13% last year, was from people protesting about penalties. It is calling on train operating companies to publish transparent accounts of how many people they fine.
Hewitson questioned whether current practice was purely a deterrent or partly revenue-raising. He said: "This is 400 people who've been unfairly treated, who have been found guilty in court of a criminal offence, or been asked for hundreds of pounds. The cost of getting it wrong is huge now."
The watchdog wants the train operators to introduce a code of practice with clear and consistent guidelines on how passengers who board without a valid ticket should be dealt with. It believes passengers should not face a criminal prosecution without proof of intent to defraud, and is asking for greater flexibility where a passenger can prove they bought a valid ticket but cannot produce the ticket when required.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus, said: "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."
Given the wide range of considerations we have outlined, we welcome the current initiative to reform the penalty fares system. However, it is doubtful whether it goes far enough. Train operators should be required to put their efforts into face-to-face service and ensuring that passengers can obtain the cheapest available ticket, instead of in wrong-footing them. "The minefield of rules and regulations" to which Anthony Smith refers should be seen as a cause for industry shame and should have no place in the twenty first century. With greed-obsessed operators such as Stagecoach, nothing will improve without tighter regulation. Excerpts from SWT's Twitter account this very day (20.4.2015):
* Incredibly rude staff at Syon Lane this morning. Made me feel like I had actually tried to dodge a fare. Very hands on. After getting off train I went to machine to check my usage (for travel expenses) and instant reaction was I was a fare dodger. Cornered me, badgered me and pestered until explained I had tapped in.
* Treated disgracefully because railcard expired, had to leave train because Visa not accepted. Station staff aggressive and rude. [SWT response: I appreciate your feelings, however you were travelling without a valid ticket so these actions are correct.] I understand the tickets were invalid, but the way they dealt with me was so inappropriate. Compassion / general kindness??
The railways should run a fair and efficient fares system, and make their services welcoming to the increasing numbers of people who use them. TOCs' Twitter accounts should be monitored by Passenger Focus, and evidence of any unreasonable treatment of passengers should bar an operator from being considered for future franchise awards.