Posted 3rd February 2015 | 3 Comments

Penalty fares under scrutiny as DfT signals changes

THE Government is taking a close look at the penalty fares system, which many operators use to discourage fraudulent travel.

It was introduced by British Rail on some commuter routes more than 20 years ago, but the system regularly sparks complaints that innocent passengers are sometimes persecuted for an honest mistake. Watchdog Passenger Focus has renewed its call to the rail industry to play fair with passengers who don’t have a valid ticket.

On the other hand, franchised operators are under pressure from the DfT to collect as much revenue as they can. The recent Govia Thameslink franchise includes improvements to revenue protection, both at stations and trains.

The DfT now says that it is considering an overhaul of the penalty fare appeals process, so that the procedure will become 'fairer and more open', and has launched a consultation.

The possible changes include:

- requiring train operators to remove the reference to criminal sanctions in letters chasing penalty fare payment. Government will provide new guidance to train operators to make clear that the threat of criminal sanctions for non-payment of a penalty fare, which is a civil offence, is not appropriate. Criminal sanctions will still apply in suspected cases of deliberate fare evasion.

- requiring all appeal bodies to adopt the “Stop the Clock” measure. This means that those appealing do not have to pay the penalty fare until a final ruling has been reached. The 21-day deadline for payment will be suspended when an appeal is received by the appeals body, and will only resume once a letter notifying the outcome has been issued. Only one of the two existing appeals bodies already uses “Stop the Clock”.

- requiring all appeals bodies to be independent of transport operators and owning groups. Currently, the Independent Penalty Fares Appeals Service (IPFAS) is owned by the Go-Ahead group, which runs Southeastern. IPFAS will need to be separated from its current owner to continue to hear appeals.

- creating an Independent Appeals Process to make final decisions. This will look at cases which have been considered twice by the appeals bodies and remain unresolved. This would give passengers further assurance their case has been fully and independently reviewed.

- regular ‘health checks’ of the system by government. We will ask train operators and appeals bodies to supply penalty fare and appeals information regularly to ensure that they are complying with the code of practice.

Rail minister Claire Perry said: "More people are using our railways than ever, and passengers rightly expect that we take strong action against fare dodgers. But passengers penalised through no fault of their own must be treated fairly.

“That’s why we have listened to passengers groups and are working with the rail industry to improve the system so it is clearer, fairer and easier to use.”

Colin Foxall, who chairs Passenger Focus, said: “It is right that train companies should take steps to stop those who try to evade paying fares. But those who have made an innocent mistake and been caught out by the many rules and restrictions should be treated with understanding and not immediately assumed to be guilty.

“We first highlighted this issue in our 2012 report Ticket to Ride and today’s update of that report shows that, while there have been some improvements, the outlook for being caught making a mistake can still be bleak. We call on the industry to apply penalties for ticketless travel with greater consistency and fairness.

“We are also looking for a change to the railway byelaws to stop the use of criminal sanctions where there isn’t any evidence that the passenger was attempting to commit fraud.”

Michael Roberts, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, responded:: “We welcome the opportunity to work with the Government on the legislative changes needed to help modernise the penalty fare rules available to operators.

“While train companies need to be able to take a firm but fair approach to deal with the small minority who deliberately dodge fares and expect others to pick up the bill, the industry is already working hard to help ensure passengers feel they are being fairly treated.”

London Midland revealed a few days ago that it is changing its methods of revenue protection, and has recently reprimanded several hundred passengers on the Cross City line in Birmingham, issuing more than 100 penalty fares.

Darren Hanley, London Midland’s head of revenue protection said, “We recognise the need to separate the fare cheats from the honest mistakes and treat them differently. This idea is very much at the heart of our new approach to revenue protection, which has seen over 800 fare dodgers caught on the Cross City line in the last fortnight alone.

"The feedback on our new approach from genuine passengers has been very positive. We will continue to study the Passenger Focus findings and work with the DfT and industry colleagues to make further improvements in this area."

The public consultation runs until 27 April.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Scott Marsden, Sheffield

    I've often wondered why a person collects your ticket at some of the station exits. Why not put your ticket into a machine which would then automatically dispense compensation for late arrivals etc. Or would that put another person out of a job?

  • strawbrick, hemel hempstead

    " ... franchised operators are under pressure from the DfT to collect as much revenue as they can ..."

    So that will be why the ticket barriers at my local London Midland station are now left open and unmanned for most of the day and from about 4.30, as they are at Euston in the evenings, ticket office opening hours have been reduced and Revenue Protection staff made redundant.

  • Michael, Reading

    I am of the age where I remember travelling by British Rail trains. If the station was unattended or machines broken or we the traveller's destination changed mid-journey or we simply did not have time to get a ticket before boarding the train... the ticket was purchased from the On-Board Conductor!
    There were no penalty fares! It was the same price at window in station or on-board the train. It often comes to mind how the privatised rail operators made a big news when Cherie Blair had not purchased a ticket for a journey from London to just north of London... We are of the same generation who were accustomed to being able to buy a ticket since the start of the railways.
    Changing the rules and people who do not travel every day - many today still do think a ticket can be purchased on-board.
    I have also noted how TOC's like FGW - the ticket inspector, charging a person a penalty fare plus the full rate because the person was travelling from Paddington to west country at the 'NEW' evening peak time. The passenger had started their journey off-peak in York (via London) but was forced to pay the penalty because they were on a train after 4pm. That was wrong! I checked the railway carriage rules and found the passenger was on the correct train, when I now hear a inspector trying it on with a passenger - I stand up and tell the conductor NO. (often the same conductors trying it on!)

    (Penalty fares were introduced, initially as a pilot, on the LT&S line of BR's Network SouthEast sector in October 1990. They were then extended progressively to other parts of NSE over the next two years. The BR annual report for 1992-3 recorded: "Penalty fares are proving an effective deterrent to fraudulent travel and were extended to nine more routes. When Thames and Network North stations are equipped later this year, the system will cover the whole of Network SouthEast."

    N.B. The Board ceased to be responsible for infrastructure on 1 April 1994, but continued as a train operator until 31 March 1997, when the franchising process was completed.--Editor.)