I write in connection with the public consultation on the review of the Penalty Fare Appeals Process.
The Existing Proposals Are a Good Start
Firstly, I fully endorse all of the proposals you have made. As I understand it, these (in summary) are:
- Removing references to criminal sanctions in letters chasing penalty fare payments.
- Requiring both appeals bodies to suspend the 21 day deadline for payment after an appeal has been lodged.
- Forcing appeals bodies to be separated from parent train operating companies.
- Creating an independent final appeals body.
- Introducing regular “health checks” of the system.
Further Areas of Concern
I do not think the Department of Transport (DoT) proposals go far enough. Based on my own experience during 25 years of commuting, plus anecdotal evidence sourced from consumer programmes, radio phone-ins, comments on social media, Passenger Focus’s Ticket to Ride report and tales friends & acquaintances have told me, I believe that rail companies often treat passengers very unfairly. Specific concerns follow.
I have had extensive discussion via email over the past couple of years with Southern’s customer services manager, [name removed], relating to concerns about the lack of ticket machines at some stations and my perception that their policy for passengers who are forced to board without a ticket, as well as their identification policy for their conductors, may place passengers at risk of unjust penalty fares or even fraud. I am dissatisfied with their responses to my concerns (although I will be fair and comment that they have already responded). So, I include specific concerns in the relevant sections below. Please note that I am only singling out Southern because this is my local operator. I consider it highly likely that the policies of other Train Operating Companies (TOCs) would raise similar concerns.
Problem: Passengers who have bought a legitimate discounted ticket but have forgotten their railcard are treated unfairly. Even though I agree that ideally passengers should carry the railcard with the tickets, people lead very busy lives and everyone makes a mistake now and then.
Proposal: Introduce a specific clause into the Penalty Fare Rules that if a passenger can provide proof after the event (within a reasonable timeframe) to the appeals service that they do have a valid railcard for the discounted ticket, the Penalty Fare must not be charged.
Example: A lady calling in to Sussex Radio recently told how she was issued a Penalty Fare when she forgot to carry her railcard with a £30 discounted ticket. This was despite having a picture of the railcard and the receipt on her phone. The Penalty Fare & replacement tickets came to over £300!
No Purchasing Facilities
Problem: TOCs refuse to provide ticket purchasing facilities at some stations, placing passengers at risk of unfair penalty fares or fraud. Passengers are therefore being forced to board trains without a ticket due the absence of a ticket machine or ticket office.
Proposal: As franchises are renewed, force all rail companies to provide at least 2 ticket machines (in case 1 breaks) at all stations. Preferably, also require all stations to be manned from start to close with either a ticket office or a staff member with a machine to sell tickets. I appreciate there is a cost to the latter suggestion but for the price passengers are paying in the cost of the ticket and through our taxes, I think we should expect no less than this. Staff at those stations could also assist elderly or disabled passengers with their needs.
Southern: Southern has refused to install a ticket machine at my local station Bishopstone on the basis of lack of passenger footfall and cost (approximately £20,000 per machine + installation & running costs).
Broken Purchasing Facilities
Problem: Passengers who board at an unmanned station where the ticket or permit-to-travel machine is broken are often unfairly charged a Penalty Fare.
- Train the Conductors and Revenue Protection Officers (RPOs) to be reasonable about accepting evidence from passengers that the facilities were broken, e.g. a timestamped photographs on their phone of the station where they boarded + any error message or notice indicating the machine was broken.
- Introduce robust, independently reviewed measures for monitoring & recording the periods during which machines were either out-of-order or not working properly, e.g. a key on the machine could not be pressed and this prevented the passenger selecting the required option or entering their PIN for payment.
- Make this data available to the appeals services & final review board. Ideally, as new technology gets rolled out, aim to get this onto hand-held devices used by conductors or RPOs in close to real time, so that the Penalty Fare is not charged in the first place.
- In the interests of transparency and to assist passengers falsely accused of “fare dodging”, make sure this data is published on an appropriate website. Some of these issues are reported on social media but, as far as I am aware, there is no website where this data is published for all stations.
- Take journey history into account: a commuter who travels regularly and on one occasion does not have a valid ticket is clearly not “fare dodging” but has made a mistake or encountered a validator that did not work properly. On more than one occasion, I have seen half a dozen people in front of me “validate” their Oyster card on the DLR but when I reached it I discovered the validator was not actually working.
- Introduce a clause into the Penalty Fare Rules that where after the event it can be demonstrated that the ticket purchasing facilities were broken, the appeals service must refund the customer any Penalty Fare they have paid, plus costs associated with the appeal.
Example: A passenger who commutes daily and uses an Oyster card to pay for his travel during a ticket check was found to have a card that was not validated, despite having touched in at his local station. He protested his innocence and appealed but the company decided to prosecute him for fare evasion. Only when his solicitor got involved and requested the CCTV surveillance from the station did the company back down and settle (his legal costs) out of court.
Failure of Conductors to Pass Through the Train to Sell Tickets to Those Boarding Where No Purchasing Facilities Were Available
Problem: Conductors are regularly failing to pass through trains to sell tickets to those forced to board the train without a ticket, due to an absence of purchasing facilities at their station.
- Make it a condition of franchise for conductors to pass through the train regularly within areas where stations without purchasing facilities still exist.
- Introduce disciplinary measures for conductors who repeatedly fail to do so.
Southern: Although Southern has told me their conductors should ideally pass through the train to sell tickets as part of their customer service, they very regularly (more than 50% of the time in my experience) fail to do so on my local line between Seaford and Lewes, which is where the stations without ticket machines are located. This year no conductor has passed through the train on that section of railway to sell tickets on any journey I have made. In one instance last April (which I did refer to Southern) a lazy conductor announced that people who needed tickets should come and find him at the back of the train, as there was a revenue protection team operating at Lewes. He failed to pass through the train until after Lewes, at which point he was carrying out a ticket check (and may have issued penalty fares to those without them?).
Dubious Incentive Schemes for RPOs
Problem: Incentive schemes for RPOs may encourage some of them to issue penalty fares in breach of the Penalty Fare Rules, e.g. to passengers who were forced to board without a ticket due to an absence of purchasing facilities at their station. E.g. Southern RPOs apparently receive up to 5% of the Penalty Fare amount charged + up to 5% of the ticket that is also issued, as the passenger still needs to purchase a valid ticket for their journey. Issuing a Penalty Fare that you know is in breach of the rules in order to gain a financial reward could constitute fraud. Passengers therefore may be at risk of being defrauded by RPOs, in particular during on-board ticket checks.
- Ban such incentive schemes. It is a highly dubious practice for RPOs to receive a financial incentive for issuing a Penalty Fare. This would be akin to paying a bonus to police offers for everyone they arrest or a doctor for everyone they diagnose with dementia!
- Introduce a clause into the Penalty Fare Rules that the appeals services must cancel and refund any Penalty Fare (plus any costs associated with the appeal) inappropriately issued where a passenger had proof at the time that they could not buy a ticket before boarding, e.g. a Permit to Travel or a photo of a broken machine.
- Introduce disciplinary measures, ranging from written warnings to dismissal, for RPOs who issue Penalty Fares in circumstances where it is in breach of the Penalty Fare Rules.
- For any RPO who repeatedly issues inappropriate Penalty Fares in order to top up their wages under an incentive scheme, consider bringing charges of criminal fraud.
Southern: In relation to the absence of ticket machines at stations like Bishopstone, I asked Southern whether they expect passengers forced to board without a ticket to hunt up and down the train looking for a conductor. They declined to answer this question with a simple Yes or No, but their response strongly implied that they do expect passengers to do this, even though this policy is not clearly stated on their website or at the stations in question. They admit that some services run without a conductor, so a passenger may be hunting in vain.
They also implied that passengers who failed hunt the conductor to do so may be issued with a Penalty Fare. This not only breaches the Penalty Fare Rules but it also represents appalling customer service even for the able-bodied. Some people forced to play “hunt the conductor” (who in my experience is often “hiding” in the private section at the end of the train) may be disabled, elderly, with children or carrying heavy luggage. So, it would seem that as well as saving £20K on the cost of the machine, Southern could potentially be raking in money from Penalty Fares issued under these circumstances & from full-priced tickets charged in place of the discounted ones that could have been bought at the station using a railcard, had Southern provided facilities to do so. I would suggest that any passenger who is forced to board a service without a ticket due to the refusal of the train company to provide purchasing facilities, should feel free to take a seat (assuming there is one!) and wait for the conductor to sell him/her a ticket, or buy a ticket at the end of their journey or at an exchange station, if time on the connection allows. This is not “fare-dodging”: this is an expectation of a fair fare policy, reasonable treatment and decent customer service.
Fraud Risk: RPOs & Conductors Are Refusing to Show Identification During Ticket Checks
Problem: Conductors are RPOs are in some instances refusing to show identification to passengers on request during ticket checks. This creates an environment on board that makes it easier for criminals to defraud passengers:
- A member of rail staff who refuses to show identification to passengers achieves the following:
- They potentially make themselves unaccountable. Whilst in some instances they may be able to be identified from running schedules, this relies on those schedules being accurate and the passenger knowing exactly which service they were on (a passenger in a city may not always be aware of this due to short hops and frequent services). In some instances on very frequent services such as the DLR is may be very difficult to determine which “Bob” it was who behaved badly or collected the Penalty Fare without showing ID or issuing paperwork.
- They intimidate the surrounding passengers (who may also wish to see ID) into wrongly thinking they are not entitled to see identification. As you will be aware, the requirement to show identification is set out in section 24.3 of the Railway Byelaws, Section 25 of TfL’s Railway Byelaws and section 5.4 of the 2002 Penalty Fare Rules. The belief that they are not entitled to see identification may lead those passengers to become victims of fraud on a later occasion.
- They set an example to any potential criminal on the train of how to bully your way through the train in order to defraud passengers. Or worse, a criminal posing as a rail official could, perhaps at a quieter station, force a passenger to leave the train (on the pretext of, say, their Oyster card not being valid) in order to commit a sexual assault.
- Historically the type of crime where criminals pose as rail officials is very rare. It is predictable that it will increase in the coming years due to the rollout of smartcards for travel and, in particular, the introduction of travel by contactless bank/credit card in London back in the autumn of 2014. Concerns are:
- Card cloning or theft of data/funds via Contactless Bank/Credit Cards. There are already devices to do this.
- Theft of credit or, potentially, personal data from smartcards, such as Oyster or Southern’s Key. Whilst they do have ITSO security protecting them, cyber security is a technological arms race and it is only a matter of time before this security is cracked (if this has not already happened) just as the previous Oyster security system was a few years ago.
- Tickets on smartphone apps is probably not very far away. Getting access to smartphone during a “ticket check” may enable fraudsters to steal the login details for online banking, internet shopping or social media, which could in turn lead to identity theft or emptying of bank accounts.
- I am sure that you will already be aware that several people working at Richmond station were jailed in September 2014 for defrauding Oyster customers, a man in France was caught in December 2014 posing as a conductor on a train and a penalty fare pad was stolen from a PFO in January 2015. So, crimes in related areas already seem to be on the increase.
- Make the Railway Byelaws more robust in defining what constitutes identification in order to prevent TOCs from trying to pass off whatever they think they can get away with as ID. I would except any ID to have the following:
- The name of the company employing the individual, e.g. Southern.
- An up-to-date photograph from which they can clearly be recognised.
- Their authorised role, e.g. Conductor or Revenue Protection Officer.
- A means of identifying which employee you are dealing with (to make them accountable), i.e. either a unique employee number (preferred solution, as it protects the employee) or first name + last name.
- Introduce disciplinary measures for rail staff who refuse to show ID to passengers on request.
- Ideally, amend the Railway Byelaws to force members of rail staff to have their ID out clearly on display whenever they approach passengers. This would have the added benefit that if passenger are used to seeing ID, they may challenge a fraudster who approaches them without an ID or spot a fake ID. On some operators, such as Southern, IDs are so rarely seen out on display that passengers would be unlikely to know the difference between a genuine one and a fake.
Example: PFOs were reported on social media to be refusing to show IDs at Liverpool Street Station on the evening of 23.12.2014.
Southern: On 3 occasions I have experienced Southern staff members either point blank refusing to show me ID when they approached me demanding to see a ticket or, in one instance, covering up part of the ID. These incidents have been reported to Southern, and in one case to British Transport Police. I would also note that whilst Southern has indicated that their PFOs should show ID they have tried to excuse their conductors from doing so, despite there being a clear requirement to do so under the Railway Byelaws (section 24.3). Southern has tried to pass off as ID a “recognised uniform” + name badge bearing “Southern” and the conductor’s first name.
The problems with this are:
- I would only expect a fraudster to try and pass these items off as ID.
- Neither item actually identifies the person, and therefore does not constitute ID, which means – as far as I can see – the policy fails to comply with the Railway Byelaws. It does not identify them as the legitimate authorised bearer, i.e. there is no photo to show it even belongs to them. It also fails to identify them as an individual, i.e. fails to make them accountable. Cleaners and platform signallers may also have a badge with Southern’s logo and their name, but they are not authorised to check tickets, take payment for travel or issue Penalty Fares.
- There is no definition of a recognised uniform and, in any case, ad-hoc passengers will not know what the uniform looks like.
- Southern staff frequently approach passengers without a jacket on, in many cases with just a pale green shirt (no logo), sometimes with a jumper (no logo) over the top. In these instances the only thing that “identifies” they may be Southern employees is a name badge with “Southern” and a first name such as “Bob” (I have seen instances where even that is not on display!). This lax security means that a fraudster could wear a suit trouser, pale green shirt and laminate a piece of card with Southern’s logo (from their website) & their first name and they could easily pose as a rail official. My impression is that most passengers wouldn’t give it a second glance to question whether it was genuine.
- With this policy Southern is, in my view very irresponsibly (although not necessarily deliberately), effectively conditioning passengers not to check for ID. This increases the risk of fraud to their passengers.
Power to Remove Individuals From the Train
Problem: I can understand that there may be situations under which it would be desirable for RPOs or Conductors to remove people from the train, e.g. the drunk without a ticket sleeping across 3 seats on commuter train. The problem here is the lack of regulatory oversight, which gives scope for rail officials to abuse that power by threatening to remove passengers who, for example, protest their innocence (and are genuinely innocent, e.g. boarded at a station with no ticket machine) when unfairly charged a Penalty Fare. The lack of oversight allows them to behave pretty much however they like (particularly if they refuse to show ID), which could include bullying, intimidation, threatening behaviour, fraud or unfair penalty fares. I have personally experienced intimidation from a member of rail staff when I asked to see some ID – and have made clear to the TOC in question that if it ever happens again I will call the police and ask them to attend the train!
- Introduce a body to provide regulatory oversight of rail officials.
- Make it a disciplinary offence to abuse power in this way.
- Or withdraw this power from rail staff. In my view, only the police (accountable + regulatory oversight) should have the power to remove people from the train.
Requirement to Hand the Ticket Over to Rail Official
Problem: The requirement in the Railway Byelaws (17.2 & 18.2) to hand over a ticket to a rail official could place passengers at risk of fraud, particularly if the “ticket” is a contactless bank card.
Proposal: Amend this legislation to make it clear that this does not mean handing over a smartphone or bank card. The “ticket” in this case is the electronic transaction.
Passengers Often Do Not Know Their Rights
Problem: The Penalty Fare Rules prohibit issuing a Penalty Fare if there were no facilities to purchase a ticket (clause 7.3). If the passenger changes trains on route at a station in a Penalty Fare area on route a PFO cannot issue a PF under these circumstances, as the passenger originally boarded at an exempted station (clause 2.o). Most passengers are unaware of these and other exemptions.
Proposal: Force TOCs to present these exemptions clearly and prominently on both posters at all stations without a ticket machine and under the Penalty Fare scheme section of their website.
Freedom of Information
Problem: Our railways are part of our public transport system, paid for in part with public taxpayer money and also by members of the public in the ticket price. As part of a public service, you would expect transparency and Freedom of Information to apply, so that the public can scrutinise expenditure and other aspects of the service. This public transport system has, somewhat irresponsibly in my view, been handed off to private companies who are not subject to Freedom of Information. Private companies can be economical with the truth and often decline to answer questions, or answers they do give can be ambiguous or evasive.
Proposal: Bring TOCs under Freedom of Information, to ensure transparency and allow the system to be scrutinised.
Example: In connection with installing a ticket machine at stations like Bishopstone, Southern declined to tell me how much a machine cost, leaving me with no idea whether it was reasonable or not to decline to install one. Whilst I did manage to find out that figure from another source, Freedom of Information could have helped improve transparency here.
I do not wish to give the impression here that having a Penalty Fare Scheme is in itself a problem. It is good to have a mechanism to catch those who are deliberately trying to travel for free. Otherwise, the rest of us only end up paying for them in our ticket price and our taxes.
Nor do I wish to imply that the majority of Conductors or PFOs are issuing unjust Penalty Fares or refusing to show ID. Many of them are decent honest people who will do their best to provide a good service to passengers and treat them fairly.
But the existing scheme is not fit for purpose for the reasons I have outlined above:
- It presumes “guilty until proven innocent”.
- It does not go nearly far enough in protecting honest passengers from unfair penalties who intended or wanted to pay for their journey.
- It creates a set of circumstances that can allow staff to intimidate, bully or even defraud customers.
- It creates an environment in which fraudsters could easily operate.
- It fails to protect the very passengers it is designed to serve and ensure they are treated fairly.
The majority of cases of inappropriate Penalty Fares could easily be weeded out by introducing sanctions such as:
- Disciplinary measures for staff who charge inappropriate Penalty Fares, refuse to show ID or threaten/intimidate passengers.
- Forcing TOCs to not only refund money but also settle any costs resulting from an inappropriate Penalty Fare.
You may also wish to review historical cases to determine whether the appeals services upheld inappropriate Penalty Fares in favour of the TOC in question, with a view to:
- Refunding passengers affected in those cases.
- Repealing any criminal convictions for fare evasion where there is evidence the passenger did board where there were no facilities to pay, plus appropriate compensation for any resulting losses.
I would urge the Department of Transport to review all of these recommendations, and those that others may make in this public consultation, to provide a fair Penalty Fare System that catches genuine fare-dodgers without penalising those who want to or intend to pay their way. I would also urge you, in the light of changes in technology, to review the scope for crime created by on-board ticket checks combined with poor identification of staff.
Finally, I would ask that you consider the problem of having the sometimes ambiguous or potentially conflicting laws & rules set out in multiple places, such as 1889 Railways Act, Railway Byelaws, TfL’s Railway Byelaws, 2002 Penalty Fare Rules, National Terms & Conditions of Travel, and various other acts. These ambiguities may allow lawyers acting for TOCs to unfairly prosecute people who boarded the train in good faith (e.g. no purchasing facilities) and who may not be able to afford expensive legal help. Isn’t it time we had a single set of laws appropriate for the 21st century that fairly and justly cover all aspects of travel, both ensuring protection for revenue of our railways whilst providing safeguards for passengers against potential abuse by either fraudsters or the private companies that run our railways.