Passengers who boarded a Southern train on the Seaford line today ended up travelling for free – due to Southern’s ongoing poor customer service.
Could They Have Bought a Ticket?
The station where the passengers boarded has no ticket office or machine, so there was no opportunity to buy a ticket before boarding.
They took a seat, apparently expecting a Southern conductor to come and sell them a ticket. This was a perfectly reasonable expectation of customer service, which sadly the conductor failed to provide.
Just before the train pulled into Seaford, the conductor finally appeared at the end of the carriage – not selling tickets but making his way to the private section at the end of the train. They tried to catch his attention on the way past but aside from saying hello he ignored them and sailed on past.
At Seaford station the ticket office was closed and it did not take these passengers long to work out that you can’t buy a retrospective ticket from the machine to cover the journey you just made.
So, they ended up not paying for their journey. And short of walking through the train trying to find the conductor – which it is not reasonable for Southern to expect their customers to do – it is difficult to see how they could have paid for their journey. The failure here was Southern’s. The passengers were not at fault.
Could They Have Ended Up With a Penalty Fare?
In theory, no. Section 7.3 of the Penalty Fare Rules explicitly prohibits issuing a penalty fare if a passenger started their journey at a station without facilities to buy a ticket.
Anecdotal evidence on social media suggests that some Revenue Protection Officers will not let a little thing like the rules get in the way of issuing an inappropriate penalty fare, particularly when Southern’s dodgy incentive scheme means that they keep up to 5% of the amount they collect.
Last year I asked Southern’s customer services manager to confirm they would not issue penalty fares to passengers who were forced to board without a ticket at stations where Southern refuses provide a ticket machine.
Not only did he duck the question but his response appeared to suggest that their staff would issue penalty fares under these circumstances, despite the fact that this is not permitted and could be regarded as defrauding passengers.
There were no Revenue Protection Officers at Seaford when this train arrived today, so I do not know whether they would have tried it on with a penalty fare instead of doing the right thing, i.e. selling them a ticket.
Was it Fare Evasion?
No. Fare evasion is trying to travel for free, i.e. travelling within the intention of not paying for a ticket. It was very clear from the discussion I overheard between these passengers that they expected to be able to buy a ticket on the train. Their unsuccessful attempt to find a way of paying for their journey at Seaford also made this clear.
Will Southern Provide Better Customer Service In Future?
During the past 2 years, I have raised the issue of poor customer service regularly with Southern’s executive team, ranging from lack of ticket machines to the regular failure of conductors to pass through the train selling tickets.
All of this seems to have fallen of deaf ears. But hey, why should a private company bother to do the right thing unless they can make money out of it?
Well, today’s customer service failure lost Southern revenue. Perhaps this loss of revenue will finally convince Southern that selling tickets to passengers is not only their duty but is also in their own interest.
In fact, shareholders in Govia – Southern’s owing company – may be interested in knowing that they are not doing everything within their power to make a profit.