Rail penalty fares overhauled

Passengers who made innocent mistakes will no longer be 'treated like criminals' under penalty fare overhaul

Updated: 
Passengers who made innocent mistakes will no longer be 'treated like criminals' under penalty fare overhaul

The Government is stepping in to ensure that rail passengers making innocent mistakes over ticketing are not threatened with criminal proceedings.

The Whitehall plans to overhaul the rail penalty fare appeals procedure coincide with publication of a report from Passenger Focus which said that "the outlook for being caught making a mistake can still be bleak".

Passenger Focus, the rail customer watchdog, cited cases of train travellers being threatened with prosecution even after eventually producing a valid ticket.

Now out for consultation, the Department for Transport proposals aim to make appealing against penalty rail fares fairer and more open.

Penalty fares can be charged by train operators if a passenger is found to be travelling without a valid ticket. A process already exists to enable those who think they have been charged incorrectly or unfairly to make appeals through one of two appeal bodies.

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Measures for public consultation include requiring train operators to remove the reference to criminal sanctions in letters chasing penalty fare payment.

Inappropriate threat

The 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.

Also the government is seeking views on the requiring of 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.

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."

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In its report today, Passenger Focus said there has been some improvements since the publication of its report on the issue in 2012.

But it cited a number of cases where passengers fell foul of regulations even though they had were able to later produced valid tickets or good excuses for travelling without authorisation.

Case study

One case Passenger Focus highlighted involved a passenger who sent video of a broken ticket machine within the 21-day period in which he could appeal against a penalty fare.

He subsequently received a letter saying that as he had not paid within 21 days he now owed an extra £20 in administration fees. The very next day he received an email saying his appeal had been successful but that he still owed the £20.

Passenger Focus said: "On querying the justice in being found not guilty and yet still having to pay, he received a letter stating that failure to pay could result in a criminal prosecution.

"We intervened and the fee was 'waived'. The passenger was only days away from paying simply to remove the anxiety of being taken to court."

In another incident a passenger was threatened with criminal prosecution unless he paid £229 in addition to paying on the train after leaving his railcard at home.

This threat came after he enclosed proof that he had a valid railcard at the time.

Passenger Focus said: "The train company acknowledged that he had a railcard and that there was no fraud involved but this simply did not matter. His 'crime' was that he could not produce a valid ticket at the time of the ticket check."

Innocent mistakes

Chairman of the watchdog Colin Foxall 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."

Michael Roberts, director general of the Rail Delivery Group which represents rail operators and Network Rail, said: "The rail industry understands the concerns raised by the report and the need to get the balance right between taking a firm approach to fare-dodgers while fairly treating those who make an honest mistake."

He went on: "The passenger watchdog recognises the important improvements we've already introduced including an industry-wide code of conduct.

"We're determined to continue working hard so that more passengers better understand where and when they can use their tickets and travel with greater confidence."

Mr Roberts added that he welcomed the opportunity to work with the government on the legislative changes needed to help modernise the penalty fare rules available to operators.

The Office of Rail Regulation's economic regulation director John Larkinson said: "We welcome the Passenger Focus report and the Department for Transport consultation on penalty fares.

"It is important that passengers are treated fairly, particularly if they have made an innocent mistake, or they haven't been provided with the clear information they need to buy the right tickets for their journey.

"We are overseeing the development of a code of practice on rail ticket selling to help passengers make the right choices when buying their ticket."

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