I had a behind-the-scenes look at how the TOC works with Carlisle Group to clamp down on fraudulent travel across its network

Me with the Carlisle team and Jason Wade

I’m not going to lie, I knew I was on a yellow card when I was invited by Northern to spend a day with them disproving my theory that the industry has taken its eye off the ball on revenue protection. Commercial and customer director Mark Powles got it out the way quickly and clinically. “Alex, you know me and that I tell it how it is, but a couple of your recent articles have got right up my nose,” he explained, but from then on the trip was cushty. When I jousted back that he wasn’t going to get advertorial from me, he said it was absolutely the last thing on earth he wanted. At least we got that straight from the start.

I wasn’t fessing up to them, but I already knew that Northern was one of the better operators. Last Sunday night at 22:00, I travelled to Blackpool North and the gates were staffed Fort Knox-style. Anyway, here we were in a Hunslet industrial estate and Carlisle Group’s Leeds HQ. I was greeted by their CEO Paul Evans and his sidekick Steve Cere, who were hosting me alongside Northern (Evans’ folk provide outsourced revenue protection services for the train company). My chaperones are an eclectic bunch and it’s clear their quirkiness and passion are differentiators in terms of revenue protection stewardship. I often lament the lack of big personalities left in the game these days, but the cast for today belied this theory. Round the table, we had industry experience and savviness, combining a data-rational, cerebral approach with ‘boots on the ground’, practical, effective action.

This experience and passion for revenue protection was a throwback to an era way back when TOCs first took revenue risk and there was a real fervour to cut fare evasion

This experience and passion for revenue protection was a throwback to an era way back when TOCs first took revenue risk and there was a real fervour to cut fare evasion. Powles, is a classic example. It seems he’s been on the scene longer than Cliff Richard, but he’s got that steely determination, dynamism and ‘been round the block’ intuition that’s vital in an industry where turnover of revenue protection managers is high and it’s difficult to retain any corporate memory. That he, as commercial and customer director, also looks after revenue protection, analysis and deployment, and can combine it with his overall strategy for income development, pricing, retailing, marketing and customer communication is gold-dust. His dual-purpose job title is apt – “Our heart is as much about creating satisfied customers as it is about making money. It’s a good balance,” chimes Powles. He’s supported by Jason Wade, who despite his boyish good looks is into his 50s and has arguably more specialist experience in revenue protection than anyone else in the UK. Having being at Northern since 1993 he knows every trick in the book.

Powles and Wade are an entertaining double-act in themselves but throw in the mix the ‘joined at the hip’ partnership with Carlisle Group and it feels like a winning formula. Evans explains that they are still performance managed and challenged by Northern, but there’s no sense of Carlisle being treated as subservient suppliers incapable of generating their own ideas. In Evans, there’s no way that would happen anyway. He’s progressed from security guard to CEO and tackling fare evasion is in his blood. Like your typical bouncer, he’s got piercing eyes and is very much ‘no-nonsense’. Evans is also a part-time Football League referee. Last time I saw him, he was keeping fiery Bradford City manager Mark Hughes in order as fourth official for their game at Sutton United. Evans is supported by Cere – who cares deeply about dealing with fare evasion and is a 25-year railwayman.

After insightful presentations we’re off to Bradford Interchange and joined by Louise Shearer, the unflappable boss who oversees the Northern revenue protection team. She describes the collaboration she receives from regional directors within Northern but also the sense in there being a specific revenue protection department on a company basis, rather than aligned to and part of the regional structure. That way, revenue protection is recognised as a specialism and deployment transcends functional boundaries. This collaboration with regional teams is critical as conductors on every train have a big part to play with a recent digital ticket inspection commission payment leading to improved visibility of this key element of revenue protection and protected against fraudulent refunds.

Shearer introduces me to her fraud and prosecutions team and young Andrew Turnbull, ice-hockey fanatic and marquee signing from local bus company Blazefield. He provides a compelling presentation, including how they nobbled someone ‘doing a doughnut’ which involves buying a ticket for both ends of a journey but not the hole in the middle. There’s also work being undertaken to profile different types of fare offenders, understanding their motivations and behaviours.

Delay Repay fraud is something we wouldn’t have needed to worry about a few years ago, but it’s now a huge issue

Success against fraudulent Delay Repay claimers is also showcased, including the beady eye of a customer service centre employee who yesterday detected claims from multiple individuals using the same taxi receipt and which uncovered a prolific scammer. Delay Repay fraud is something we wouldn’t have needed to worry about a few years ago, but it’s now a huge issue. The days of lazily sitting at home on a sofa and checking out social media and ‘live train running’ data feeds on websites to identify delayed services then pretend to have travelled on them, are diminishing fast, particularly in Northern where the analysis is as forensic as that at GCHQ. There are graphs relating to specific individuals illustrating both their movements and refund claims, with quirky spikes triggering investigative action.

Northern has 474 stations and only operates 20 gatelines. It’s clear how the retailing landscape has changed and in turn customer behaviour and expectation, with digital journeys up, representing 63% (up 47% in four years) and ticket office sales slumping to 19%. This has introduced new types of fraud and in particular fare evaders buying an online ticket, then not validating it on the system and claiming a refund on their purchase, as if they suddenly decided not to travel. Northern take a traditional approach to combatting fraudulent travel by making it as easy as possible to buy a ticket. The focus is around more ticket-vending machines (TVMs) with a greater product capability, as well as increasing off-site retail channels, making them easier to use and less exposed to fraud. This involves equipping staff, including the Carlisle team, with handheld mobile barcode validators.

Messaging remains important still and is reinforced by media coverage around fare evasion successes and proper ‘old school’ stuff like floor vinyls at hotspot stations reminding customers they are entering an area where they need a valid ticket. Wade calls it a ‘sporting strategy’ – ‘Play Fare! Cross the line, risk a fine!’

In this era of short-sighted cost cutting and excessive obsessions with business cases, Powles has demonstrated the ‘no-brainer’ return on investment for deploying ticket checking.

In this era of short-sighted cost cutting and excessive obsessions with business cases, Powles has demonstrated the ‘no-brainer’ return on investment for deploying ticket checking. He’s cultivated a culture across Northern that sees the revenue protection team as a ‘profit centre’. Wade regales me of Northern’s regular deployment of stringent ticketless travel surveys and micro-analysis of the results to drive effective resource deployment decisions. It’s a fast-moving, agile approach, of constantly checking shifting data and trends and responding accordingly, including plain clothes activity. The team have graphs galore, illustrating that they’ve pinpointed, quantifiably so, fraud levels on a station by station and corridor basis. Wade’s most prized spreadsheet shows a drop from 10% to 5% in ticketless travel since 2019. Northern also subscribes to the view that pro-active revenue protection measures reduce anti-social behaviour and criminal activity, whilst also increasing customer satisfaction scores, demand and revenue.

In Carlisle Group, Powles has a supplier that not only understands the problem and responds to it, but who properly trains and equip its staff as rounded revenue protection experts. They aren’t like many other suppliers and TOC employees who are entrusted to protect revenue but instead, provide merely a manual and sometimes supine, passive presence, that evaders know isn’t up to the job of challenging them effectively. Meanwhile, Evans and Cere pop up 365/7 across the railway, meeting their teams and getting stuck in themselves and it’s clear they’re as aware of the issues as their own client, Northern, helping feed them with intelligence and insight around fare evasion issues. Their visibility naturally sharpens the focus and motivation of their teams.

Back on the train to Leeds and mortifyingly I realise I’ve forgotten to purchase a ticket and Evans is giving me a ‘you’re on a final warning’ stare. Thankfully, Wade wades in to tell the conductor ‘he’s with me’. We arrive in Leeds and I watch the Carlisle team in action, furtively casting their eyes from a distance over customers as they approach the excess fares window, about to explain their misdemeanours or genuine mistakes. Evans says he’s clearing off for a few minutes so that his team can talk ‘candidly’ about him and revenue protection.

It was clear that his folk were really firing when it came to sussing out all the scams and tackling them and the underlying causes of fare evasion.

It was clear that his folk were really firing when it came to sussing out all the scams and tackling them and the underlying causes of fare evasion. They spoke about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis both on the desire for folk to avoid paying and also their more alarmed reactions when challenged and briefed on the potential for a £100 penalty fare. The railway, like other public services, is also suffering from more adversarial behaviour from customers post pandemic, but dressing them in the Northern uniform, rather than wearing a silly yellow hi-vis has created greater respect. It was striking how smartly and professionally attired they were and also the partnership they had forged with Northern and Network Rail employees across the station.

It’s also interesting to regularly note at Leeds how the queue at the Excess Fares window no longer stretches halfway down Platform 1, but now in dribs and drabs, testimony to the message getting home to fare evaders. There’s been 9,200 successful prosecutions in the 10 months of this financial year, which is impressive. Northern has a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ approach to those incurring penalty fares, before pursuing court action, which seems logical. It seeks out of court settlements as these do not clog up the judicial system. Prosecuting is time-consuming and costly.

Anyway, it’s Friday evening and, although Wade and Turnbull (whose mobile barcode validator is poised to check whatever ticket could be sniffed out) would happily spend their whole weekend hunting fare evaders, I’ve a long trip back to Surrey. Evans needs to prepare for tomorrow, where he’s running the line at Crawley Town v Salford City in League 2, but not before he’s detoured to Derby to congratulate a member of his frontline team on 20 years’ service. There’s no winding down for the weekend from this whirlwind.

Evans, Powles and their entourage are a strange collection of indefatigable, strong-minded, focused individuals who, in their coming together, have formed a team and approach that, bluntly speaking, could be utilised to provide a joined-up, multi-faceted revenue protection service for the entire industry in the new world (GBRTT take note, the solution is here!). Northern’s mantra is ‘Think National, Act Northern, Deliver Local’ and they’re keen to do their bit for the industry.

Very soon I’ll be doing dummy trips north posing as a fare evader and I look forward to reporting back my findings. It’s worth hunting down shortcomings, just to get right up Powles’ nose once more and solicit another fascinating trip out on his manor – but remembering to buy a ticket this time. I’m not giving Evans the satisfaction of brandishing his red card at me!

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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