Passenger Focus is right to raise the issue of severe punishments for well-intentioned customers who fall foul of ticketing rules

 

Thank the Lord for Passenger Focus – an organisation that keeps the rest of the transport industry grounded and in check, but not in the nagging, bad-tempered, illogical moaning sort of mother-in-law way of other consumer bodies and pressure groups over the years. Keen to give praise where it’s due and gentle, but influential reminders to those stepping out of line, it is balanced and polite in approach, which is why it’s latest report, Ticket to Ride?, shows it’s really got hot under the collar about how operators protect revenue, often using draconian punishments for customers who inadvertently fall foul of the rules.

In typically consensual manner, Passenger Focus’ report is reasoned and balanced, showing instances of operators dishing out fair and measured treatment, there are some real horror case studies that I can relate to with ease. Last week, the machine was down (yet again) at my local station and the ticket office closed, so a fellow customer had no way of collecting a ticket that his company had booked him online at a cost of over £300! He asked for clemency from the conductor and was told that if he arrived at Waterloo and showed the booking reference on his email, then he’d be prosecuted for fare evasion!

My mate’s treatment is shocking, shocking customer service, but it’s not an alien example, as Ticket to Ride? reveals in its tale of woe – customers losing tickets, but showing their receipts, others feeling ill and getting on an earlier train, some forgetting their railcard but twice displaying it at the appeals process, one poor soul forgetting to print his ticket at home and being punished for trying to show his booking confirmation on his laptop screen – there’s no discretion used in these case studies, just bloody-minded, cynicism and punishment so financially disproportionate with the so-called offence that it just smacks of rapacious greed by the operators. Many railway employees can’t relate to this particular aspect, having worked their whole life in the industry and with their privilege tickets (free passes to you and I), they and their families have never spent a single penny to swan around at will the length and breadth of the country, let alone the £150 punitive cost of accidentally travelling on a train half an hour earlier than the one booked or leaving the railcard in yesterday’s suit pocket.

Around two years ago, I had an extraordinary encounter at Victoria station. Conscious my all zone annual season ticket kept failing to open the gates, I showed it to the chap on the side gate and asked if he might let me through, on inspection that it was valid. He refused, threatened me with the courts, but not before squaring up for a fight, abandoning his gates to follow me across the concourse and in full view of scores of passengers, pushed and prodded me, aggressively putting his face so close it caressed my nose, then radioed the BTP accusing me of threatening him. My ticket had cost me £2,000 – could you imagine going into a restaurant, hotel, shop or anywhere for that matter, spending this money and being treated in such a way? You’d think the management at Southeastern would understand – they didn’t – I emailed his senior manager and he didn’t even apologise, but forwarded me to a junior person in the complaints department who sent me the most patronising, standard email that must have taken all of 20 seconds to cut and paste together.

Macho managers are partly to blame – clever dick revenue protection managers (and I’ve been one on several occasions in previous lives), who come in and want to be seen to sharpen up a bunch of inspectors who spend too much time dawdling the hours away at cosy, unthreatening, parish halts where there’s nought chance of a dishonest customer or anything to do or where if they were tasked with doing anything moderately confrontational, they’d race for the health and safety card. Keen to prove that they are razor sharp commercially and egged on by a target orientated boss – who also wants to prove they are commercially hungry and astute – these managers fire out these “all or nothing” policies that would criminalise and deprive discretion from elderly ladies in wheelchairs, if they had half a chance.

Flexibility is the key and it is how this is deployed that is so crucial. Discretion is all about flexibly making a judgement based on the individual situation and this should be encouraged. However, the railway industry should not be so flexible that it chooses wholesale when or when not to be interested in revenue protection. With suicidal bids being a feature of rail franchising, in a climate where economic growth is non-existent, the only tool up the sleeve of operators is to drive hard on the so-called lost millions – the fortune that goes out the window on ticketless travel, though, even now, the real figure is pure speculation because there’s no definitive model to work out the true cost. Other operators on more generous franchise terms, or those that have run out of steam and found it difficult to sustain the drive against fraud, are more laissez-faire. So, a customer may expect discretion at one station, but go up the line to another and have a totally different experience. Even within the same franchise, the ticket gates will be routinely manned one evening but not the next or never at weekends or worst case, open at one entrance and stringently closed the other side of the footbridge. When it suits.

The better operators are those who, at least, spell out the ticket restrictions in a clear and logical manner, though even in doing so, they do it ham-fistedly and create an environment that is so unwelcoming and unnerving it makes the nervous, occasional traveller feel worried and threatened at the outset. East Coast Trains are gradually becoming more measured and moving away from the Gestapo-like “welcome” over the tannoy before trains depart wherein their first customer touchpoint is a rules and regs type announcement around ticket validities. Better though, than some operators who get on the tannoy after the train has departed and there’s no going back if you’ve got the wrong ticket, and images of pound signs increasing in size appear at the window with every passing station. It’s mental torture that feels deliberately imposed by the gleeful operator.

All this negative stuff mocks the efforts of marketeers to retain and attract new customers, growing revenue and loyalty by making the railway a happy-clappy, smiley, welcoming environment where everyone’s a winner. I wonder what the really psycho-analytic customer service gurus, who pontificate about emotional intelligence and customer touchpoints, make of it, and also the brand architects whose efforts at creating a warm and engaging, enticing experience are ridden rough-shod by the rampant revenue protectionists and their size 10, clunky, feet-first approach and lack of empathy. Only last week, I was delayed for two hours on a broken down train between stations and as we approached our destination in searing heat (the air-conditioning also went kaput!), I overheard the train manager say to his colleague: “Shall I go through and inspect tickets?” You couldn’t make it up really.

It’s so vital not only to customers but also for the reputation of operators that unscrupulous means are not taken to embark on meeting this challenge. Inspired and sponsored by Passenger Focus and using  ATOC as the conduit, TOC-owning groups should get round the table and agree an industry code and derivative standards for protecting revenue in the interests – not at the expense – of bona fide, well-intentioned customers and these should be incorporated into franchise agreements and policed with the usual, stringent, rigour around detail that is part and parcel of the Department for Transport’s management of franchise operators, including a regular review by them of customer feedback relating to this issue and periodic tests. Operators must also better educate, train and performance manage their over-zealous employees as well as make more of an effort to properly recruit, coach and empower those who blindly follow procedures to the letter of the law, because they are neither sufficiently astute nor inclined to show discretion, rather than genuinely caring that their employer might potentially be losing a few bob, here or there. Until this is all sorted, I’m steering clear of that side gate at Victoria station, it’s just not worth the aggravation.

 

CASE STUDIES:

Consistency

  • As observed in Edinburgh. A German tourist boarded with only the booking confirmation from a print-at-home ticket. The guard carefully explained the situation and allowed the passenger to travel without additional cost.
  • Mr H selected the ‘Print-at-Home’ optionfor his tickets but forgot to print them. On the day he took his email confirmation to the ticket office who told him to speak to the train conductor. He did so prior to boarding and was advised to get on. His details were taken later by a different member of staff. He subsequently received a court summons for not having a valid ticket.

Discretion

  • Two elderly, disabled passengers had tickets for a specific train. One of the passengers fell over and was in pain. In a desire to get home they travelled on an earlier train. They acknowledged that their tickets were not valid but felt that the train company would understand the circumstances. Wrong assumption: they were issued with an Unpaid Fares Notice for £239.

Fairness

  • Miss A could not produce her ticket when asked. Despite having proof of purchase and the return half of the ticket, she was threatened with prosecution unless she was willing to pay £92 to ‘settle’.
  • Due to earlier delays and cancellations Ms W was unable to pick up her booked tickets from a ticket machine as planned. She rang the train company and was advised to board and use her email confirmation. She was given a Unpaid Fare Notice for boarding the train without a valid ticket. Even though she was able to collect the original tickets at the end of her journey, her appeal was rejected.
  • Miss F bought an Advance ticket for a long distance journey. She used her railcard – which reduced the fare from £14 to just under £10. She forgot her railcard and was issued a penalty fare for £260. She was willing and able to prove that she had a railcard after the event but to no avail.

Source: Passenger Focus

 

Alex Warner has two decades experience in the transport sector, with experience of rail to tube, bus, coach and aviation. He has held director level posts at several train operating companies, including heading up the Stansted Express rail business, then becoming South Eastern Trains retail director and Midland Mainline’s customer services director. He is currently chief executive of Flash Forward Consulting – flashforwardconsulting.co.uk

 

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