The rail industry should have got its house in order first before increasing penalty fares fivefold. Front line employees will suffer


“I’ll kill you. I’ll rip your f***ing head off.” These were the words of Michael Lucas just before he punched Colin Spicer, who was carrying out gateline duties at Wigan Wallgate, causing multiple facial injuries, including a broken jaw and fractures to his eye socket. Principally, because of this reason and instances such as this, I think that the decision by the Department for Transport to increase penalty fares from £20 to £100 is a recipe for disaster.

Incidents such as this aren’t uncommon and this has been the case for decades. I recall nearly 30 years ago dealing with a similar assault as a duty station manager for Swiss Cottage on the Jubilee line. I’ll never forget the sheer panic of a ticket seller at Ruislip Gardens calling me when I was working in the BTP Control Room, as he was bound, gagged and locked in the strongroom in his booking office during an armed raid. Railway employees have been murdered in terrorist attacks in the UK, but I’ve not yet heard of an instance of a fatal assault before. Frankly, it’s a matter of time.

The threat of violence shouldn’t, of course, be a reason to give up on trying to enforce revenue protection across our railway. In the incident involving Colin Spicer, staff were refusing to replace the £70 pass that Michael Lucas had lost earlier in the day. However, the challenge we have is that society is increasingly violent. We all know that drugs are more prevalent than ever and with it all the baggage around guns, knives and disproportionate and violent reactions to everyday situations, such as being challenged by authority (to show a valid ticket). For all the money in the world, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t work on the gateline at a UK railway station these days. I’m sorry but it’s just how I feel.

Unfortunately, and I hate to say ‘I told you so’, the UK rail industry hasn’t helped itself and we are now in a position of having to get back control around fraudulent travel

Unfortunately, and I hate to say ‘I told you so’, the UK rail industry hasn’t helped itself and we are now in a position of having to get back control around fraudulent travel. Covid didn’t help the situation in that, for fairly obvious reasons, ticket inspections were non-existent. However, we’ve been slow to restore these and therefore a generation of fare evaders is growing up seeing it as an audacious insult to be expected to buy a ticket, let alone be challenged to prove they have done so.

It is as if it is the ‘right’ of anyone to travel on the railway, irrespective of whether they have paid their fare. I see it among youths living, in particular, on ‘branch lines’ such as mine to Shepperton, where many stations are ungated and ticket checks are infrequent. For the Shepperton line, read many others across outlying parts of London, those sleepy cul-de-sac routes that are busy as far as Zone 4 but then dwindle into obscurity, rarely, if ever, to be visited by management, revenue protection officers or British Transport Police. Only the very honest youngster (or son of a transport professional…) would go to the trouble of buying a short hop ticket on our line.

I don’t think it is unreasonable for customers to speculate as to whether revenue protection officers even exist in some companies nowadays, their visibility is so low. I remember on London Underground in the 1990s, you’d be hard pushed in a week not to come across one of those imposing inspectors with their bright yellow lined hats; experienced, well-trained folk (including on aspects of criminal law as well as railway Byelaws) exuding gravitas and specialist expertise. They were regularly supported by undercover, plain-clothed officers, with assistance from the police in bringing prosecutions to bear. I cannot recall when I last saw an inspector on the Tube. Part of the problem is that sometimes when I do see revenue protection teams across the UK rail network, their uniform has been so dumbed down they are not particularly visible and they don’t suggest an air of authority.

The loss of credibility among ticket inspection teams hasn’t helped the situation. Spicer was an employee of Carlisle Support Services, an excellent organisation and, though an outsourced supplier, the robustness of their revenue protection outstrips much of that provided directly by the train operating companies. That’s probably why poor Spicer suffered, because he was making a visible effort to enforce regulations. However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that even if a ticket gate is staffed, the chances of the person there being able to implement any kind of punitive measure, such as a penalty fare or report for prosecution, or even an excess fare transaction, is next to zero. It tends to be only the revenue protection inspectors that properly lay down the law, although Carlisle is one of the few whose staff are trained to do so.

Gates being wide open has propagated the situation. This creates a complete laissez-faire picture for customers and fare evaders – “if the train company can’t be bothered to protect its revenue, is it really such a big deal if I bunk my fare” is a sentence that I’m sure has gone through the thought process of many a fraudulent customer. The optics of gaping wide open gates are shocking for the industry, suggesting a station with no control over who can or can’t enter the network and carefree, feeble, insipid management. The fact that all the revenue risk now sits with the Department for Transport means that there is practically no incentive for operators to manage revenue protection.

Worse still, if a fare evader is so used to seeing no controls in place, the moment they try and leave the network and see someone with the temerity to check their ticket, the more likely it is they will see it as some kind of out of the ordinary threat, rather than established behaviour. The problem is that if the railway is seen as incompetent on a whole range of measures, then this just breeds an intuitive feeling of contempt towards it and a sense it is “fair game”. I’m not suggesting that open gates and inept management across some parts of the rail network is an excuse for staff assaults, but over time, it does breed an environment that is generally less law-abiding and less safe for all.

The lack of control hasn’t been helped by the gradual decline over the years of school liaison teams. When I was growing up and indeed well into the first decade or so of my working career, British Rail, Railtrack, then Network Rail and every train company, had a very active cadre of employees who would trawl the local schools, not just warning of the hazards of playing on the railways but also cultivating an understanding among kids of how to behave more generally on the network. They created a positive sense of respect and rapport between them and railway employees. Their talks weren’t just about rules and regulations, but would also give interesting insights into the industry and their nearest station, as well as involve fascinating tours.

Coupled with the local station manager being more visible in the community and management per se, through posters, pamphlets and also pacing the network, the railway certainly wasn’t as faceless as it is today, social media excepted, of course. When out on the system, you would see not just British Transport Police officers but also railway staff that masqueraded as ‘old bill’, in the guise of accredited ‘Travel Safe’ or ‘Railway Enforcement Officers’ and if you didn’t see them, there would be lots of posters about, reminding you they did exist, it’s just they hadn’t turned up on your station or train yet.

In the days of franchise bidding, when companies had to conjure up ideas that were imaginative but not too unrealistic and therefore cost prohibitive or impossible to implement quickly, schemes such as these were all the rage and looked good in a tender. Those days of competitive bid processes or even TOCs having the freedom, financial resource or even encouragement to cultivate these initiatives have, in the main, disappeared.

Do we genuinely feel that the whole fares and ticketing system have been simplified such that it is so ‘black and white’ now whether a customer has knowingly purchased the wrong ticket, or in the case of not having a ticket at all been unable to buy one in the first place?

Back to the penalty fare increase and there are other factors that make it such a flawed decision. Do we genuinely feel that the whole fares and ticketing system have been simplified such that it is so ‘black and white’ now whether a customer has knowingly purchased the wrong ticket, or in the case of not having a ticket at all been unable to buy one in the first place? There are so many anomalies, inconsistencies and loopholes in our fares structure and ticketing infrastructure, which are further worsened by the advent of online retailing. So too the situation is compounded by the sheer variety of distribution channels – faulty barcode readers, customers’ mobile phone batteries dying and there being no chargers on board so they can power up and show their tickets for inspection, tickets purchased for trains that don’t exist due to late notice cancellations and strikes, railcards not downloading onto devices and so on.

I wince every time I stand in the queue at a ticket machine and watch customers struggle, ever so slowly to navigate their transaction – which buttons to press and which ticket to purchase, it’s torturous and you can see the confusion etched into their faces. Quite often, I intervene and do the pressing for them!

Finally, we have the cost of living crisis, likely to increase fare evasion and conflict that lead to staff assaults. Shoplifting has already begun to rise as folk struggle to put food on the table and travelling without a ticket is probably viewed as a less risky way of saving money. Many who rightly abhor stealing from a shop don’t have the same attitude towards fare evasion and do not view it as ‘theft’. This may, of course, support the rationale to increase penalty fares. However, it will raise the stakes when railway staff have to challenge and enforce the policy, with ticketless travellers ratcheting up their emotions because they cannot pay the fine.

We can’t do nothing, but my preference would be for the industry to get its house in order first. More visible posters explaining the need to purchase a ticket and greater assistance, including a simplified fares structure and retailing experience, are a start. So too, proper and credible management of gatelines and visible, effective on-board teams, alongside rethinking the whole education piece around making customers realise that there is a cast iron expectation that they pay for their fare. Bringing back a greater and more interactive presence in schools and the community to educate the next generation and prevent a cultural malaise from materialising, is also important.

For poor Colin Spicer, though, effective sentencing is paramount and whilst the 28 months that his assailant received may seem strong, personally, I’d have thrown away the key. We need the authorities to be supporting the railway and indeed all frontline employees and we simply must make the public aware of the impact of incidences of this kind on staff, their lives and the railway as a whole, as well as the consequences not only for those who, in one extreme, commit the kind of offence that Colin suffered, but also those who habitually think nothing of bunking their fare.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 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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