Entire GTR Network to Become Penalty Fare Zone

By the end of September the entire GTR rail area will become a Penalty Fare Zone.

This means that at all Southern Rail, Thameslink and Great Northern stations where you can currently buy their ticket on board, passengers will need to buy a ticket before boarding the train … or risk a penalty fare.

Why Is GTR Introducing New Penalty Fare Stations?

The company is required to deliver this by September 30 in order to comply with its franchise agreement, i.e. this change has been ordered by the Department for Transport.

GTR is also required under their franchise to run some form of advertising campaign to make passengers aware of this change.

Locally on the Seaford branch this affects Bishopstone, Newhaven Harbour and Southease.  Ticket machines have already been installed at the first 2 stations with Southease following next week.

What is a Penalty Fare?

This is an additional fare that is applied to passengers found on board without a valid ticket for their entire journey.  You may receive a Penalty Fare if you:

  • Have not bought a ticket before boarding.
  • Go past the destination stated on your ticket, even if there is no difference in fare to the following station.
  • Are seated or standing in the first class section without a first class ticket, regardless of how packed the train is … unless the conductor has announced that first class is declassified.
  • If you have a discounted ticket and are not carrying your railcard.
  • Go via a route that is not valid for your ticket or on a train that is not the one specified on a ticket for a timed train.

How Much is a Penalty Fare?

It is twice the price of a single fare to your destination.  So, if you are travelling from Seaford to London this could set you back around £60 + the price of the ticket.

If twice the ticket price is less that £20 then the minimum fare of £20 is applied.

Who Can Issue a Penalty Fare?

Not all ticket inspectors can issue penalty fares.  They must be explicitly authorised to do so.  There are 2 types of ticket inspector:

  1. Guard / Service Host / Conductor.  These staff members are not authorised to issue penalty fares but they may approach you to check you have a valid ticket.  If you do not they may sell you a ticket.  They are required to show you ID if you request it.
  2. Revenue Protection Officers (RPOs): These are special staff whose job it is to catch fare dodgers and they are authorised to issue penalty fares by means of a special document called an “authorisation to collect”.  They are expected to exercise discretion under particular circumstances such as if people are elderly, disabled, appear to be from abroad, i.e. may not be familiar with the system or speak good English.

Cash Is No Longer Accepted

These new ticket machines do not accept cash payment.

This may be a problem for some people who do not have credit/debit cards.  It is not clear, for example, how children are expected to avoid a penalty fare.

Permit-to-travel machines do normally accept coins, so get a permit to indicate your intention to pay and try to exchange this for a ticket with a staff member on board.

As the ticket machines refuse to accept a valid means of payment, i.e. cash, then a penalty fare should not be issued.  In fact this is one of the specific cases set out in the examples of where RPOs are expected to show discretion.

Unfortunately, based on the track record – no pun intended – of RPOs, it is likely that some will issue penalty fares. So it will be up to the passenger to appeal and take it to court if necessary.

Watch Out for the Heavies

It is likely that soon after these additional stations become penalty fare stations, the “heavies” will be out in force.

Given that not everybody will have picked up on the change of policy at that station – i.e. that you can no longer board without a ticket – you would expect RPOs to exercise discretion, i.e. let the passenger buy the ticket but warn them that if they board again without a ticket they will receive a penalty fare.

Given their dodgy incentive scheme – see below – and that train companies are widely perceived to be abusing the penalty fare system to top up their coffers at the expense of honest passengers who had intended to or tried to buy a ticket, it seems more likely that RPOs will simply welcome the additional salary boost by catching out those unaware of the change in rules.

Transport Focus’s Ticket to Ride Report highlights the poor way train companies apply penalty fares.

What if the Ticket Machine is Broken?

If there is a permit-to-travel machine, then you must put some money towards the cost of your ticket into this machine and exchange that for a valid ticket on board.

If there is no means to buy a ticket or a permit to travel, then a penalty fare is forbidden under section 7.3 of the Penalty Fare Rules.

Train companies are required to have mechanisms in place to let ticket inspectors know which machines are out of order.  If an RPO is unsure of whether a machine is not working, they are expected to give passengers the benefit of the doubt.

In practice RPOs often seem to issue the penalty fare anyway.  They have a dubious incentive scheme where they get to top up their salary by up to 5% of every penalty fare they issue, so they have been known to ignore their duty to exercise discretion and issue completely illegal penalty fares where the passenger had no means to buy the ticket at the station.

Avoiding Penalty Fares

You can protect yourself against penalty fares as follows:

  • Always buy a ticket before boarding if there is any opportunity to do so.
  • Otherwise buy a permit to travel, if you can.
  • If neither is possible, gather your own evidence as this will both help you appeal an unfair penalty fare and defend yourself in court if necessary,  e.g. take photographs / video of any error message on ticket or permit-to-travel machines.
  • If there is a Help Point use this to let the train company know the ticket machine is broken – this helps to protect you and other passengers.  Ask them for a reference number relating to your conversation.
  • If you see a staff member on board, explain the situation and ask to buy a ticket.
  • However, there is no actual obligation for passengers to go hunting up and down the train to try and find staff member – although train companies and RPOs will often try and tell you differently.  GTR got told off last year by the Department for Transport for telling passengers this.
  • If you have a discounted ticket, make sure you are carrying your railcard with you and check it is in date.

How to Deal With an Unfair Penalty Fare

Be polite but firm about the following:

  • Ask to see their ID and their “authorisation to collect” document:
    • Take a note of the details.  RPOs are obliged show these to you and let you note the details.
    • If they refuse to do so, then they have failed to prove they are an authorised collector and they cannot lawfully proceed with issuing the penalty fare.
    • Never hand over money or personal data to someone who refuses to show you ID.  Instead call the police to the train on suspicion that they are a criminal posing as a ticket inspector.  The recent introduction of smart tickets may lead to criminals posing as ticket inspectors to defraud passengers.
  • Ask to buy your ticket.  You have to pay for your journey anyway and this helps to establish your intention to pay.
  • Show them any evidence you may have that the ticket machine was broken.  Remind them that under these circumstances a penalty fare cannot legally be issued.
  • If they insist on issuing the penalty fare anyway:
    • Ask them to explain to you why they are issuing it.  They are obliged to do so.
    • There is no obligation to pay the penalty fare immediately.  Tell them that you are appealing it and will not be paying it there and then.  You have 21 days to appeal or pay up.
    • Make sure they give you a copy of the Penalty Fare form.  They are required to do so and this contains important information, including how to appeal.
    • You must give your name and address if you are not paying immediately.  Under data protection rules you can insist on writing this down – rather than saying it out loud and effectively sharing it with fellow passengers.  You may wish to remind the RPO of their obligation to keep your data safe!