Southern Forces Passengers to Board Without a Ticket

Why Are There No Ticket Machines at Some Stations?

When it comes to train tickets, my local train company Southern has a “buy before you board” policy.  However, at a number of stations, e.g. Bishopstone or Southease, there is no means to buy a ticket, either in the form of a ticket office or a machine.

For a while I have been concerned that a lack of ticket purchasing facilities may lead to passengers be charged unfair penalty fares, so I asked Southern to install at least one ticket machine there.  They said no, citing limited resources.

Can’t They Afford to Install Them?

To try and put their response in context, I asked what the approximate cost of a ticket machine is but sadly Southern declined to answer that question.  Fortunately, Passenger Focus was able to provide that information: it costs about £20,000 for a ticket machine, plus one-off installation and on-going maintenance costs.  According to the Guardian, the Go-Ahead Group (owns 65% of Southern) is reporting record profits of £100m.  In Go-Ahead’s own press release for their new Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern they estimate franchise payments to be about £350m next year.

So, at something in excess of £20K a pop, I would respectfully suggest in the light of the above it is easily within the resources of their group to be fair to passengers and provide the means to buy a ticket before boarding the train!

What are we paying our exorbitant ticket prices for, if a small proportion of it cannot be spent on buying a ticket machine?

Anything Else Wrong?

Last February I was waiting for a train and became aware of a Revenue Protection Officer (RPO) near me issuing a Penalty Fare Notice to a young man.  One thing the officer said caught my attention: she suggested that he should have walked through the train to find the conductor to buy a ticket.

This surprised me, as I was unaware of any requirement that passengers should to make their way through the train searching for a conductor:

  • What if the passenger is elderly or disabled: shouldn’t they be sitting down instead of trying to pass through carriage after carriage of a train rattling along the rails, desperately trying to find someone who will sell them a ticket?  What if they have a fall?
  • Should someone with heavy luggage drag their cases through several compartments with them?  Or perhaps leave it behind and cause a bomb scare?
  • Should a pregnant woman or parent with small children have to hunt for a train official, just because Southern refused to give them the chance to buy a ticket at their local station?
  • What if the conductor is not in the public area of the train but locked away in the driver’s carriage or the conductor’s carriage at the rear.  I see the latter happen regularly on my line.  Should the passenger have to guess which end of the train to go to and start banging on the door to get their attention.

What Is Southern’s Policy?

The simple answer is: I don’t know.

I approached Southern to ask about their policy:

Where Southern has failed to provide passengers with the means to purchase tickets before boarding the train, do they expect those passengers to have to make their way through the train to find the conductor?

As they did not directly answer the question, I escalated the issue to Passenger Focus and specifically asked them to put this question to Southern on my behalf.  Again Southern ducked the question and did not give a clear Yes or No answer.

Is the answer Yes?

  • If they do expect their customers to hunt out a conductor to buy a ticket, why don’t they say so clearly?
  • Why are there no big posters at stations without ticket machines reminding people that they need to scour the train until they locate someone who can sell them a ticket?

Is the answer No?

  • Why can they not publish this clearly, so passengers can take a seat without worrying whether they might become the victim of a Penalty Fare.   The conductor could then come along and sell them a ticket or they could pay at the end of their journey?
  • Given that the vast majority of us are honest, fare-paying people, would it be an idea for Southern to allow post-payment via their website for those who boarded and disembarked at stations with no ticket machines, and where the conductor failed to pass through the train and sell them a ticket?  Southern might be pleasantly surprised that some people are honest enough to pay afterwards.

Did Southern Give Any Response?

Yes.  They made the following points.  [Some of these come via Passenger Focus, i.e. are second-hand.  Whilst I am sure they have been relayed faithfully, I have written to Southern asking for them to let me know if anything was lost in translation and will post an update if they respond.]

In brackets below I’ve put the answer to the above question that their response implies – talk about sending mixed messages!

  • Passengers know they need to purchase a ticket: (Implies:Yes). This ducks the question and is so irrelevant that it is beneath contempt.  We know we need a ticket: we want to buy one at the station before we board the train!!! Southern has refused to allow us buy one by failing to provide a ticket office or any machines.
  • Elderly or disabled passengers can pay at their destination: (Implies:Yes).  Just quite how disabled or elderly do you have be to avoid the wrath of an RPO?  What about the person with heavy luggage or children?
  • If passengers cannot locate the conductor, they can pay at their destination: (Implies:Yes). Don’t they still risk encountering a surly RPO en route or at their destination?  Particularly, if they have changed to a connecting train part way through their journey.  How will the RPO know whether they went and looked for the conductor or not?
  • RPOs can sell tickets: (Implies: No). Good to know –  but there are plenty of stories out on the internet where RPOs appear to have unfairly charged a penalty fare rather than issuing a ticket.
  • The conductor should pass through the train to sell tickets as part of their customer service: (Implies: No). To be fair, they frequently do so on our lines but they also often do not.  So, it is down to the personal integrity of the individual – or perhaps their whim or mood on the day – as to whether you get a chance to buy a ticket on board.  I recently heard a conductor announce at Seaford that people should make their way to buy tickets from him in the rear carriage, presumably because he was too lazy to do his job and walk through selling them at the necessary stations up to Lewes.  It was certainly poor customer service on his part.  But after Lewes he was quite happy to walk through the train to carry out a ticket check and potentially charge penalty fares – and, if memory serves me correctly, he’s one of the conductors from whom I’ve seen particularly surly behaviour in the past!

Why Won’t Southern Give a Straight Answer?

Only they know, but a couple of possibilities come to mind:

  1. If the answer is yes, then in terms of customer service this absolutely stinks.  Southern was already rated low for customer service in a recent survey.   Maybe they think the answer to the question should be yes but realise how bad it looks to refuse to install ticket machines, retain employees who are too lazy to carry out their duty to sell tickets and then threaten their passengers with Penalty Fares for not having a ticket.
  2. Maybe they want the answer to be yes but realise it is unenforceable due to the exemptions in the Penalty Fare Rules mentioned below.

Could You Get Charged a Penalty Fare?

So, if you board at a station with no ticket machine and do not actively seek out the conductor, could you get a penalty fare?

The Penalty Fare Rules make no stipulation that passengers must walk up and down the train hunting for the conductor.  But section 7.3 of those rules does make it clear that a Penalty Fare must not be charged if you boarded at a station where no ticket purchasing facilities were available:

7.3 An authorised collector must not charge a penalty fare … if any of the following circumstances applied at the station where the person joined the relevant train.
a There were no facilities available to issue the appropriate ticket or other authority for the journey which that person wanted to make.

If there is a Permit to Travel machine, you should pay an amount towards your ticket from that machine and take that permit as proof of the station at which you boarded.  It may also be wise to take a time-stamped photo of the station as additional evidence.  Obviously, if a conductor does pass through the carriage, it would be sensible to catch their attention and ask to buy a ticket.

If an RPO or conductor does try to charge you a penalty fare, it looks like they are breaking the above law by doing so, if you have proof that you boarded at a station with no purchasing facilities.   You do still owe the ticket though, so you should ask to buy this from them.  You would be sensible to check & take note of their identification – they are obliged to show you this and let you note down their details.  If they still try to insist on you paying a penalty fare, you could indicate you are appealing it (see more detail).  Although, I would respectfully suggest that if they did deliberately charge a penalty fare when you had proved you had boarded at a station where there was no means to buy a ticket, this could constitute fraud on their part and it may be worth calling the police!

Also keep in mind that if you have transferred within the network to another service, this is still a connecting service on a journey and the original station at which you boarded is the significant factor here.  On most connections there is insufficient time to exit the train area (often through barriers) to buy a ticket and still reach the connecting service on time.

A Final Thought

Most people do not know their rights or the above exemption under the Penalty Fare Rules.  Of those wrongly charged a Penalty Fare, a number do not appeal them through lack of time, not understanding the process, feeling unable to deal with such issues or because the RPO did not issue them with the correct paperwork (the Which? forums recently had a case like this).

So, is it possible that Southern – perhaps completely unintentionally – does not only save £20,000+ by refusing to install a ticket machine at my local station but may (possibly quite inadvertently) end up earning increased revenue from people who boarded a train without a ticket as a result and ended up paying an unlawful Penalty Fare on top of the ticket price?

Update

Since writing the above post I received a further response from Southern in which they appeared to imply they do expect customers to hunt the conductor to buy a ticket, even though they admit that some services run without a conductor.  Click here to see my comment on their response.