How Revenue Protection Officers May End Up Harming Passengers

The intention behind Revenue Protection Officers (RPOs) is a good one.  They try to catch those who wrongly think they can travel for free.  However, it seems some RPOs may be behaving poorly, such as applying inappropriate penalty fares, intimidating passengers and refusing to show ID when requested.  Such behaviour could result in passengers becoming victims of fraud and other crimes.

People Who Evade Payment Steal From All of Us

People who deliberately try to avoid payment for their journey are not only defrauding the train company but are also effectively stealing from the rest of us.  Most of us do the right thing and pay our way, so why should others use the rail service but not pay their fair share.

If they are not caught, we will end up paying for their journey either through our taxes or the increased ticket price.  So, it is good that rail companies employ staff to catch such people.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that this is an unregulated industry with very little oversight or scrutiny.  The Penalty Fares they charge are not cheap and may range from £20 to twice the cost of your journey.  This could run into hundreds of pounds on some routes.  RPOs have the right to use reasonable force to remove passengers without a ticket from the train.  These powers may give some of them the impression they can get away with behaving pretty much as they like, very much like private car clampers used to until they were banned.

Threatening Behaviour

Some complaints have focussed on RPOs who were reported to act in an intimidating or bullying manner.  No rail passenger should have to tolerate intimidation or threats, whether it comes from a fellow passenger or a member of staff.  Threatening behaviour is a criminal offence.  If you experience threatening behaviour, contact British Transport Police on 0800 40 50 40 or, if you feel under immediate threat, dial 999.

Refusal to Show ID

Just before Christmas there was a reference to a “horde of” RPOs refusing to show ID at Liverpool Street Station in London.  All RPOs are obliged to show you ID and let you note down the details. This is set out in section 5.4 of the Penalty Fare Rules.  Anyone (including a conductor) who approaches you to inspect your ticket must show you ID (section 24.3 of the Railways Byelaws or section 25 of TfL’s Railway Byelaws).

An ID should achieve the following:

  • Authenticate that they are a genuine authorised official.  You would expect this ID to bear the name of the employing company, the individual’s role and a clear photograph from which they can be recognised).  The photo authenticates that the ID belongs to the bearer.
  • Identify which member of the rail company you are dealing with.  This means it must either bear a unique employee ID or the first + last name of the individual.

Additionally, any RPO must have an “authorisation to collect” document, which you are also entitled to see and note down the details.

An RPO who refuses to show ID is exhibiting, in my view, unreasonable behaviour, designed to intimidate you into compliance whilst keeping him/herself unaccountable.

Why is ID Important?

A likely increasing trend in rail crime over the next few years will be scammers pretending to be rail officials in order to defraud passengers or worse.

The risk increased a little over the past few years with the increasing rollout of smartcard schemes, such as Oyster, where credit and possibly personal details are stored on the card.  Last September ticket clerks at Richmond were jailed for defrauding Oyster customers and  in France in December 2014 a man was arrested for posing as a conductor.

The big change came in autumn 2014 when travel using contactless bank cards was introduced on transport across London.  Bank card skimmers are already available to criminals.  Sooner or later the ITSO technology that protects smartcards will also be cracked.  It is only a matter of time before criminals will spot the opportunity to pass through trains posing as ticket inspectors and stealing credit, personal data or banking details.

Penalty Fare Officers who act in a threatening manner or refuse to show ID are effectively helping criminals by setting up an environment in which fraudsters can more freely operate.   Their behaviour instils a culture of passive compliance into passengers, conditioning them to assume that anyone in uniform (or who vaguely looks the part) is a genuine official and intimidating passengers who want to see ID into not asking.

Charging Inappropriate Penalty Fares

The Penalty Fare scheme was never designed to punish those who wanted to or have tried to pay for their journey, yet there are many stories of how honest people have been inappropriately issued with a Penalty Fare.  You only have to browse newspapers, social media or complaint forums, listen to radio phone-ins, or read Passenger Focus’s Ticket to Ride report to find examples of poor treatment.

A typical example of an inappropriate Penalty Fare is the lady who recently left her railcard behind.  Despite having a photo of the valid railcard on her smartphone and the receipt, she was fined, pushing up the cost of her journey from around £30 to over £200.

Another issue that generates unfair penalty fares is where Oyster card validators are not working.  On one occasion I saw half a dozen commuters touch in at a reader, only to find that it was not working when I reached it.

One piece of unfairness that has caused a fair bit of outrage is when RPOs fine people for standing in the first class section on trains that are so packed there is barely room to move.  Technically, these staff members and their employers are sticking to the letter of the law but in every other sense they are behaving disgracefully and with an apparent complete absence of morality.  Of course, where companies have dodgy incentive schemes (see below), the motivation for RPOs inappropriately charging such penalty fares may simply be greed.

Issuing Penalty Fares in Breach of the Penalty Fare Rules

Section 7.3 of the Penalty Fare Rules prohibits issuing a penalty fare if you boarded at a station where there is neither a ticket office nor a machine.  It should be noted Southern appears to have indicated that their PFOs may issue a Penalty Fare in breach of these rules.   Other companies may also “try this on”.  In Southern’s case it is particularly worrying, as their RPOs apparently make up to 5% commission for each Penalty Fare they charge.  This effectively incentivises them to doing the wrong thing, as it tops up their salary.  Southern may not be the only train company running this kind of, IMHO, highly dubious incentive scheme.

Bear in mind that deliberately issuing a fine that is in breach of the rules could constitute fraud, particularly were personal gain is involved.

Is There Anything You Can Do About It?

You could certainly consider:

  • Making sure you know your rights by being familiar with the penalty fare rules, particularly sections 7 & 8, which cover situations in which a Penalty Fare must not be charged and the information a PFO has to give you.
  • Make sure you always see and note down their ID and “authorisation to collect”.
  • Do not be tolerant of intimidation or threats.
  • Record evidence using your smartphone of where you boarded, error messages on broken ticket/permit-to-travel machines or any threatening behaviour by rail staff, so that you can present this to the train company, the police or a court of law, if necessary.
  • Be alert to the risk of fraud: Is the person who approached you really an authorised official?  Be suspicious (and call the police if necessary) if they try to charge you a Penalty Fare that clearly breaches the rules.
  • Take the opportunity to voice any concerns you have about Penalty Fares & the appeals process to the Department of Transport.  They have a public consultation running on overhauling the appeals process until April 27.