Could Honest Passengers Be Unfairly Charged a Penalty Fare?

We all know we need to buy a ticket before we board a train or we may be subject to a penalty fare.  Those who try to evade payment for their journey are being unfair towards the rest of us who do pay our own way.  It is quite right that they should have to pay a penalty when they get caught.

But with a system that assumes you are guilty unless proven instrument, you even the most honest of us might find ourselves facing a penalty fare through no fault of our own.  Here are a few ways that this might happen:

  • There may be no ticket office or ticket machine at your local station.  This is quite common on some quieter branch lines.  The conductor on such lines should walk through the train and sell you a ticket.  But suppose you only travel a couple of stops before changing trains and the conductor is nowhere to be found?  You might then find the conductor on the main line does not believe your explanation for why you have no ticket.
  • There may be just a ticket / permit to travel machine at your station but it is broken, not accepting credit cards, or a key may not be working on the PIN keypad so that you are prevented from paying.
  • You may be using a smart card, such as Oyster, and when you held it against the machine it does not correctly register that you touched in.
  • You might have joined the tube system at a busy station via some automated barriers and because you were too close behind the person in front your smart card did not register.  If you then transfer to lines where ticket inspections are carried out via hand-held smart card readers (e.g. DLR, London Overground), you will not have a valid ticket.
  • You may have bought a ticket ahead of time but it is not the correct ticket for that route or you may be travelling on an earlier/later train than you were supposed to.

In any of the above circumstances whether you are charged a penalty fare comes down to whether the person inspecting your ticket believes you.  There are plenty of stories out in newspaper articles and consumer forums of where people appear to have been treated unfairly.

So, what should you do if you find yourself in this situation?

First check that you are dealing with a genuinely authorised conductor or revenue protection officer (RPO).  Not all rail staff are entitled to impose penalty fares.  In order to do so, they must be explicitly authorised to collect penalty fares so under section 5.3 of the 2002 Penalty Fare Rules.  When imposing a penalty fare they are obliged to show you the following documentation:

  1. Their “authorisation to collect” document.
  2. Their ID.  Do not let them try and pass off either a name badge or a uniform as being their “ID”.  Standard formal identification will bear the name of the authorising company (their employer), an up-to-date photograph from which they can clearly be recognised and either their first + last name or possibly a unique employee ID number.

Note down the details of both documents (they are obliged to let you do this), as this information may help you to appeal the penalty fare.

If they refuse to show you either document, then they are breaking the law.  Keep in mind that as tickets migrate to new technologies (smart tickets, contactless bank cards, mobile phones), there is an increasing risk that criminals will pose as RPOs to defraud customers.  So, if they refuse to show you their ID + documentation, call British Transport Police for assistance.

Next explain your circumstances and show them any proof you may have such a photo of the station where you boarded.  Be polite and remain calm when interacting with them; becoming irate or shouting will not help your case.  Keep in mind that you acted in good faith and that you are not a criminal, as the Evening Standard explains.  Not having a valid ticket for travel is not a criminal offence, although the intention to evade paying for your journey is.

If they insist on issuing you with a penalty fare notice, make it clear that you are disputing the penalty fare and will be appealing it.   You are not obliged to pay the penalty fare straight away and it is better not to pay at this point: it is never easy getting companies to refund money once you have handed it over!  You have 21 days to either pay up or lodge an appeal against the penalty fare.  You are obliged to give the ticket inspector your name and address so that the company can pursue the penalty fare.   The inspector must give you a copy of the penalty fare notice and it must include the address of the company with whom you can lodge the appeal.

Ask to purchase a single full fare ticket from the station where you boarded to your destination.  You need to buy a ticket for the journey you are making and proactively asking to do so helps to dispel any suspicion that you were trying to evade payment.

The vast majority of conductors and RPOs will try to treat you fairly and decently.  Unfortunately, a small number are very heavy handed or even threatening in their manner.  Examples of such behaviour might be: refusing to formally identify themselves, using threatening language, accusing you of being a criminal, suggesting that you should have walked  through the train to find a conductor (you are not obliged to do this if the train company failed to provide working facilities to buy a ticket), etc.  If you feel unfairly treated or threatened then call the police and ask them to attend the train.  It may be worth filming the incident with your mobile phone, as this can be used as evidence by the police in court if necessary.  Do not rely on the train CCTV: it often does not record sound and train companies may be inclined not to download it if it is not in their interest do so.

When you get home, write to the train company straight away to appeal the penalty fare.  Ask for any CCTV from the station where you boarded to be held as evidence (in case the appeal proceeds to court).

It may also be worth contacting British Transport Police (BTP) to request CCTV from the station.  Bear in mind that if you did not have a ticket because there were no facilities to buy a ticket or because a machine was broken, then others may be in the same position and may also have contacted the train company or BTP.  A number of people reporting the same issue could also form evidence that supports your account of events.

Passenger Focus or London TravelWatch may be able to provide advice and assistance on how to proceed.

Also see my Tips for Avoiding and Dealing With Unfair Penalty Fares.