It is time that the train companies took on board the fact that they are, for better or worse, in the private sector. The irony is that in many respects they behave like the old state company which they replaced, and use the rules devised to protect British Rail to their advantage.
A reader, Paul Davies wrote to me recently about his son, Alex, who was not a frequent rail user. Nor after the bad experience he had is he ever likely to be. Alex made the mistake of sitting in a first class seat on a Southern train. They are, in fact, exactly the same as all other seats, though there is a door that says First Class and anti-macassars with the same message. Rather than just saying, ‘sonny you’ve made a mistake’, the conductor slapped a £51 penalty charge on him.
His father got rather exercised about this, and started investigating. He tried to appeal the ticket but that was rejected on the grounds that there were seats in standard available on that train. No proper consideration of his son’s circumstances were taken into account, though the train company did accept that it was an honest mistake and not an attempt to fare dodge.
However, what got Mr Davies really angry was the discovery that the appeal body, the Independent Penalty Fare Appeals Service, is not, as its name suggests, ‘independent’ but rather run by the SouthEastern train operator which is owned by the same company, Govia, as Southern. The chairman of the appeals panel is Charles Horton, the boss of SouthEastern.
Now Mr Horton is an experienced and widely respected railway manager but Mr Davies and other passengers are not to know this. The Department for Transport tried to justify this arrangement by saying appeals are dealt with according to a set of criteria that it has laid down but these are not available publicly. The Department also stresses that IPFAS is separate organisation from the train company.
The key point, however, is none of this looks good. Why should railway organisations run these appeal bodies (there is another one, too)? It is simply inappropriate. Why, too, are their appeals procedures not more transparent and the basis of decisions clearly set out? And why do these organisations have a somewhat shady presence, seemingly utterly unaccountable as demonstrated by, rather amusingly, when Mr Davies tried to get more information on IPFAS. He dialled its premium line service, pressed option 4 for ‘more information’ only to get a recorded message that ‘no more information is available’. You couldn’t make it up.
Mr Davies makes an important point when he says: ‘When penalty fares were introduced they reversed the burden of proof, so people were guilty unless they could prove otherwise. This was a significant and controversial reversal of what has become known as Clause 29 in Magna Carta. This legislative change was so significant that massive safeguards were introduced and a totally independent penalty fares appeals service, IPFAS, was introduced.’ It now transpires, of course, that the independent service is nothing of the sort.
This is all part of a wider issued of the accountability of the train companies. Passenger Focus produced an excellent report, Ticket to Ride, last May in which it set out a number of examples where clearly the train companies had acted as policeman, judge, jury and jailor. When the railways were owned by the state, that was more – but not totally – acceptable as British Rail was effectively protecting the interests of taxpayers.
Passenger Focus pointed out that the companies have, under legislation, the right to impose penalties if its bye-laws are breached – and no matter what excuses are given, the company can impose sanctions, a process known as ‘strict liability’. Therefore, for example, simply not having your railcard with you (as happened famously to Richard ‘one foot in the grave’ Wilson) means you have breached the rules, even if you can prove later that you have a valid one. That is why, too, there is this licensed theft of charging people the whole fare if they happen to be travelling on the wrong train.
The Passenger Focus report outlined some appalling cases, such as a chap who was unable to get his tickets out of a machine due to a malfunction, was issued with an unpaid fare notice (UFN, requiring the full peak time fare) which it refused to rescind even when at his destination he was able to print out the tickets. The company said that he had the obligation to produce a ticket and as he did not, it issued the UFN and refused to rescind it despite the machine being broken.
Private companies are not extensions of government and should not have the right to impose criminal sanctions without any recourse to a genuinely independent appeal procedures. No other private companies in the land can do that. The Association of Train Operating Companies’ response to Passenger Focus’s report would have done Judge Jeffreys proud: ‘Train companies need to take a firm but fair approach to fare dodging because unfortunately there will always be people who try to get away without paying.’ In other words, our passengers are a bunch of thieving scallywags who deserve what they get.
However, ATOC has promised that it is ‘working on an industry-wide code of practice that will set out how operators deal with fare dodgers and where discretion can be shown for passengers who have made an honest mistake’. Clearly that cannot come too soon – and moreover, the industry should make sure that it has a clear impartial procedure to deal with disputes, rather than the sham of IPFAS.
In praise of London Overground…and the Metropolitan Railway
There is a wonderful circularity about the fact that London now has an outer Circle. OK, for operational reasons at Clapham Junction you can’t go all the way round in one train but it was rather wonderful to turn up at Highbury & Islington the other day to find that there were trains to Clapham Junction in both directions. Of course, ironically, the best way to get there would have been to take a Victoria Line train down to Vauxhall and then use a local service to Clapham Junction.
The opening of the last connection on the new outer circle – a name sadly which is not being used – in December comes just before this month’s celebration of 150 years of London Underground which demonstrates how we have rather gone full circle (as it were). The initial underground line, the Metropolitan Railway, was not so much a discrete route as a tunnel connecting various railway lines with initially a terminus at Farringdon but soon, on what was called the City Widened Lines, with a host of stations south of the river. So by the 1870s all sorts of strange journeys could be made such as Victoria to Wood Green via Brixton and Blackfriars while another route linked Woolwich and Greenwich with Muswell Hill.
And now, thanks to the foresight of Ken Livingstone, his Director of Rail Ian Brown, and a few other far-sighted individuals such as the long time campaigner on the issue, Richard Pout, London now has an orbital outer railway offering similar strange journeys such as my trip from Highbury & Islington to Peckham Rye.
To celebrate all this, The Subterranean Railway, my history of the London Underground, has just been reissued updated and with a new chapter. Anyone wanting a signed copy, email me via my website.
Mystic Wolmar’s crystal ball shatters in disgrace
Here’s what this pathetic wretch of a Cassandra came up with for last year
1. Justine Greening will come out of the shadows and proved to be an effective minister, asking difficult questions of the industry, and will remain in post.
2. Rail passenger numbers will actually decline as a result of the downturn in the economy but no more franchises will throw the towel in.
3. The Bombardier factory in Derby will get an order for some new trains.
4. Predictions of transport chaos at the Olympics will not be realised and apart from the odd crush after events, people will wonder what the fuss was about.
5. The performance of Network Rail will continue to decline as it has to cut back on maintenance spending because of the financial pressure of the current Control Period (2009-14).
6. There will be no general election despite increasing splits within the coalition.
7. Oh, and my indulgence – QPR will stay up comfortably.
Let’s forget about the first two which were completely wrong in every respect. The third one scores although the order for Southern trains actually came on December 28 2011, after Mystic had gone to press. Number 4 and number 6 are hits, too, but number 5 is wrong as so far performance is holding up, despite the odd blip. As for number 7, ‘comfortably’ does not include getting saved on the last day thanks to two dodgy goals scored by Stoke against Bolton. Half a point.
So a score of three and a half out of seven is a pretty wretched performance. Nevertheless, old Mystic is nothing but a trier so here’s half a dozen for 2013
1. Richard Brown will come up with a feeble effort for his review of franchising and recommend only minor changes but there will be real difficulties in getting the programme back on track.
2. Patrick McLoughlin will remain transport secretary all year and be considered to be doing a pretty good job.
3. The Labour party will come out in favour of taking back some of the franchises into public ownership.
4. Rail passenger numbers will grow only very slowly – just 1-2 per cent.
5. There will still be no resolution to using four of the five platforms at Waterloo International
6. There will be serious problems with the finances of the rail investment programme and the Office of Rail Regulation will have difficulty matching Network Rail’s investment plans with the amount of money available as there is a gap in the finances caused by overoptimistic assumptions on franchising.
Oh, and my indulgence – QPR will stay up, just….
One brave chap suggested to me on Twitter that HS2 will be scrapped because of Tory fears of losing seats to UKIP. That’s too far fetched even for Mystic.