The rail industry is giving the impression of a complete dereliction of duty when it comes to taking steps to prevent fare evasion

It wasn’t always like this. Pictured is South Central boss David Franks checking tickets in 2002

Between Christmas and New Year, I caught two trains and a tram with my son across London and the outskirts. When I arrived home, I realised I’d actually lost our tickets and had made the journey all the way without having my ticket checked once. This trip was on the back of three return journeys in December from London to the North without having my ticket checked at stations or on trains at any point. Rather than feel embarrassed as to how I would have dealt with the situation if confronted by a railway employee, I reflected instead on my growing dismay at the rail industry’s abdication of its revenue protection responsibility – a problem that has become much worse since Covid threw out the rule book in March 2020, and not wearing a face mask neatly over both nostrils became a more heinous crime than travelling from one end of the country to another for free.

There’s a growing excuses book, some moderately justifiable, others not

It needs to be said, just in case you hadn’t noticed, the rail industry is now giving the impression of a complete dereliction of duty when it comes to taking steps to prevent fare evasion. There’s a growing excuses book, some moderately justifiable, others not. Firstly, in the Covid world of Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements, the TOCs no longer carry the revenue risk, so in truth the only incentive to check tickets and staff gatelines is in the event that someone from the Department for Transport might be travelling and get wind that it’s, in some cases, a free railway. As the number of employees at the DfT in ‘franchise management’ roles are probably less than 15 and most of them are working from home, the likelihood of them getting wind of the free for all, is low, unless there’s a blabbermouth out there, like me.

Secondly, the railway is claiming that it is beset with the same problem that means we wait longer to get service in a restaurant or coffee shop or anywhere, for that matter – the pingdemic – caused staff shortages that became endemic when Omnicom surfaced several weeks ago. Ticket gates, in particular, are always seen as the least important area to resource, hence why in many cases the roles are outsourced, with perhaps one or two exceptions, to suppliers who are barely capable of making their staff look moderately smart or friendly. This is despite them being the point of first and last impressions for customers.

Ticket gates are static, they don’t move people, like trains do, so it’s understandably of greater importance is to find a driver or guard, though the role of staffing them doesn’t require onerous technical competencies and could be carried out by managers and support staff. They might learn a thing or two about customer needs by welcoming customers on and off stations or walking through trains, as part of roving patrols. Their presence would also create to other employees and indeed customers a sense of genuine customer-centricity, setting the benchmark. We all know how defining the presence of a manager greeting a customer in a restaurant and showing them to their table can be in terms of how driven by customer needs the service to then follow will be.

Mismanagement of revenue protection sends such a dismal signal out to customers around the motivation and ability of management across the railway. Indeed, it’s sometimes worse when it is done half-heartedly. How completely idiotic it looks to customers when at a major station, half the gates are staffed diligently and the others are left wide open. You can hear the fare evaders sniggering as they see employees sweating vigilantly only for their efforts to be made a mockery of when folk are able to walk to an alternate side of the station and enter the network unchecked.

So too on trains when the conductor walks through and says, ‘any tickets from Loughborough’ (or any station for that matter) and you know you only need to avoid eye contact and keep your head down and you’ll get away with it. Or being able to just waltz through the side gate, maybe take a kid, pram or walking stick with you to feign mobility needs and rapidly show any ticket in the direction of the overworked or apathetic gateline employee.

Then there’s the logic of choosing to travel on a train that you know the guard will not get through either because you know s/he won’t fancy it, late in the evening, at a weekend or if it is crowded. Indeed, it’s fair game to assume revenue protection officers won’t be out there on late evenings, weekends and bank holidays – when did you last see them?

Engineering works too offer a free ride as the gates will be wide open to ease the flow of customers onto buses or staff will be diverted to bus co-ordination duties. The bus drivers won’t give two hoots whether you’ve paid or not and none will be trained in ticket recognition (made harder by the range of barcodes on phones and e-tickets on offer these days – issues that impact all railway employees).

When did you last see either a penalty fare issued at a station or on a train or even a conductor issue a full, standard fare on an inter-city train

In the case of RPOs, I’ve a suspicion that some operators haven’t even agreed they can resume interactions with customers, such as ticket checking or issuing penalty fares, in these times of Covid. Many are probably hanging around stations not engaged in activities that will involve prolonged dialogue with customers of the type that occurs when dealing with ticket irregularities, others will be shoved in an office doing ‘light duties’. Indeed, I ask you another telling question – when did you last see either a penalty fare issued at a station or on a train or even a conductor issue a full, standard fare on an inter-city train because a customer either had no ticket or did not have a valid ticket for the specific service they were travelling on? Exactly.

Back in the day, all of the basic revenue protection disciplines were carried out – gates staffed, on-board ticket checks were effective and there was round the clock coverage, as well as poster campaigns warning of the life-changing effects of being caught carrying out fare evasion or ‘theft’ as much of the foreboding publicity claimed it was. I even recall many covert exercises into specific types of fraudulent travel conducted by the elite revenue protection officers, generally undercover and many planned over several weeks, like the kind of CID operation you see in crime documentaries. During several years of overseeing revenue protection departments, these kind of activities were ‘bread and butter’ and were the reason why folk sought to progress from more mundane frontline roles into revenue protection. Sometimes I talk to TOC management teams about these initiatives, and I am met with bewilderment.

The problem is that if these basic disciplines aren’t being undertaken, the more sophisticated stuff that we always found a challenge isn’t even being touched upon, such as proper analysis of ticketless travel and thence revenue at risk rates on a company, locational and more granular level, as well as data driven deployment of resources to prevent fare evasion. Other activity such as pinpointing fraud rates by demographic type and psychological profiling by offender types, as a precursor for targeted and impactful publicity-based educational campaigns has been largely consigned to yesteryear.

The issue is also one of ‘vested interest’. Suppose for a second that those responsible for managing stations and others in positions of responsibility at TOCs owned a shop and a gang of steamers were coming in looting their shelves on a daily basis. They would be having sleepless nights and in acts of desperation would be literally fighting off the hoodlums alongside drafting in security guards, putting shutters on the windows and engaging relentlessly with the police. Of all the retail owners I’ve spoken to over the years, they all tell tales of woe about seepage due to shoplifting and their dealing with it being in their top three priorities. Right now – at a railway station near you – looting is going on and it is being tolerated by officialdom. The problem is that those in charge invariably don’t see it as ‘their money’.

Clearly the issue of a lack of ‘vested interest’ is exacerbated by a financial model in which TOCs don’t take a revenue risk. But even when they did, there wasn’t a consistent clamour among management to feel the pain of every unstaffed gate or train in which a guard didn’t walk through and check tickets. I’ve seen bursts of animated interest – managing directors suddenly seeing a shortfall in revenue and creating urgency by organising a series of ‘revenue protection days’. However, these have seldom been sustained and there have been few leaders obsessed about closing all the loopholes to the network and tackling the problem of fraudulent travel.

Forgive me, if in a rare bout of immodesty I confess to being someone who has always led by example in this vein when working for TOCs. I’d be out and about at the weirdest and roughest places at the most anti-social times and days of the week, clocking and addressing unstaffed gates and hauling errant guards out of their comfort zone to check tickets. I’d be the bane of the revenue protection officers’ lives, constantly demanding greater visibility and productivity and making it harder for them to hide. I did this through personal pride and because it was something I could see as being a potential quick win and within my gift to make a difference.

I don’t ever recall having a financial incentive to do so, nor do I genuinely recall my bonus being linked to reducing the ticketless travel rate, or even linked to passenger revenue. To be honest, I cannot remember ever fretting about the attrition of customers and their revenue in the context of an impending bonus conversation with my boss, certainly not in the way that I have done in roles I have undertaken in the logistics and consultancy sectors.

The rail industry mindset is one where excuses can be made easily. As the industry is heavily reliant on demographics, there’s often a shoulder-shrugging approach when revenue drops. How can your TOC marketing manager or station manager feel they’ve blood on their hands if the numbers are down? It’s never down to their rubbish publicity campaigns or the unattractive customer proposition at their station, but always a result of something so complex – like bad weather, a recession, a riot, a fuel crisis in France, conflict in the Middle East or everyone buying stuff online and not wanting to go out ever again. Funny how, pre-pandemic, the Rail Delivery Group’s stock press release reaction to bad news was to pat itself on the back whilst lauding how privatisation had delivered record passenger numbers, as though it was all down to the brilliance of those in the industry. But when the figures go south, it’s not our fault, guv.

The current attitude and approach to revenue protection is a national disgrace

The current attitude and approach to revenue protection is a national disgrace. It needs someone to put their head above the parapet and demand that everyone pulls together and urgently address this malaise. It needs galvanising leadership. It’s so sad because in effect, so much of the work done by previous generations in taking an analytical, as well as action-orientated approach to the issue, whilst working at educating customers, communities and fare-evaders to change mindsets has been lost. We’re starting from scratch and that is an absolute outrage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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