Stephen Morris asks, why do public transport operators take a genuine mistake in the same spirit as a serial fare dodger?

For most people today is the last working day before Christmas and I’m travelling on the South West Trains service beloved of regular ‘Travel Test’ columnist Alex Warner, from Shepperton into London. By quirk of local government reform in 1965 the far end of the line is in Surrey. The train service is essentially a London commuter route, but unlike places like Watford, similarly outside Greater London, there is no Oyster card availability for the furthest-flung three stations.

Not surprisingly few people realise that these last three stations are not in an Oyster card zone. It’s an easy mistake to make.

This morning a hapless Oyster card holder has boarded the train at Sunbury, which still has no barriers which would have shown him the error of his ways. He assumes Sunbury is in the same zone as nearby Hampton: but somewhere between the two, in amongst endless ribbon development and identical semi-detached houses, is an invisible line. Oyster-equipped buses cross it seamlessly, you don’t feel a jolt as their wheels cross it. You can still board the bus in the fastnesses beyond that line and use your Oyster card. In fact you could even make the journey by from Sunbury to Hampton by bus using an Oyster card, but not, as our commuter was to discover, on a train.

This morning the smaller than usual number of passengers on the train are looking forward to Christmas. As ever on a London commuter train we are all travelling in sullen silence, but no doubt rejoicing inwardly. Then the revenue protection officer appears. If this were a Christmas pantomime we would all boo and hiss and warn each other that he’s behind you. But we don’t, and Revenue Man pounces on Hapless Commuter who, for reasons we shall never know, has boarded the train at Sunbury with an Oyster card.

Hapless Commuter is amazed to discover that he has committed an offence. Once his felony is pointed out he offers to pay the difference. This is not sufficient for Revenue Man, and like the Wicked Baron of the pantomime that is the 07.40 from Shepperton to Waterloo, he won’t accept it. A penalty fare is demanded of this person who already pays thousands of pounds a year to travel, often in cramped conditions, on South West Trains. The man, with understandable bad grace, agrees to pay the £20 demanded of him, commenting that this is a very excessive fare for a two-minute journey. Out comes Revenue Man’s pad. To the indignity of being stung £20 for what in fairness is actually a five-minute journey, not a two-minute one, Revenue Man then piles on the ritual humiliation. No, he can’t just take £20. He must have identification, he must have name and address. He then upbraids the man for his ungracious attitude, becoming much less gracious than Hapless Commuter in the process. He tries to return the £20, offering the commuter the option of being taken to court instead.

Why do public transport operators treat their customers like this? Given the lack of barriers at stations out in the Styx towards the end of this line fare dodging is rife, but serial fare dodgers don’t tend to be travelling at this time of the morning. A genuine mistake is taken in the same spirit as a serial fare dodger.

So often at Bus Users UK we see instances where hours of management time has been expended on trying to prove that the customer who has made a simple mistake, or has even let down by the shortcomings of the bus service, is a liar and a cheat. Years ago I was surrounded by a phalanx of revenue inspectors on a tram in the West Midlands because I had failed to get any of the ticket machines at Wolverhampton to accept my £2 coin, and in the gaze of a full tramload of passengers, was marched off the tram at, of all places, Winson Green: was I going to be banged up on the spot? That’s ancient history and the problem of recalcitrant ticket machines was solved by putting on conductors: but not before an innocent traveller, returning from delivering a lecture on public transport from the users’ perspective, had been ritually humiliated.

A similar thing happened when, having just missed the half-hourly service to Shepperton, I had the temerity to board a different train which would get me to an alternative station, closer than Shepperton, and finish my journey by taxi. It mattered not that the fare to that station would have been less than I had paid; again I was marched off like a common criminal and made to pay the full fare from the station before the point where I had (oh, the shame of it) gone ‘Off Route’. On this occasion I was made aware that they were being merciful to me and would not fine me for this most heinous of crimes. By the time they had finished I now had insufficient cash for the taxi and had to walk home, giving me an hour or so to repent of my wickedness and reflect that the path of righteousness, to wait another half hour for the correct train, would have got me home quicker and without further expense. Nice of the railways to teach me a bit of morality, I suppose: but of course had I been in the Oyster card area and been travelling on an Oyster card I would have committed no sin at all.

Please, let’s have a little compassion. Genuine fare dodgers need dealing with. But draconian fines and humiliation for those of us whose crime has been not to understand a public transport that’s designed to confuse the unwary: no thank you.

 

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