Cworld Essay: London Underground Penalty Fares

Below you can read Chameleon’s Essay Fares Fair for Cherie Blair first published in early February 2000. It describes an adventure that the author ‘fell’ into after being accosted with a London Underground Penalty Fare. It reminds unsuspecting passengers that this device is not actually, in legal parlance or in reality, a ‘penalty fare’, but a good old fashioned demand for payment that can be challenged. Enjoy …

Chameleonworld Essay
February 2000

Fares Fair for Cherie Blair

One could imagine it happening to Margaret Thatcher’s husband, the hapless Dennis, but surely not to the present Prime Minister’s wife. Yet we read that no less a figure than Cherie Blair, high flying lawyer and first lady, was recently fined for failing to purchase a railway ticket on her first journey to work as – mind the irony please – a judge. Most newspapers, regardless of the size of their intended readership’s brains or attention spans, seized upon the same angle for this story, and although dwelling upon the petty embarrassments of VIPs is an incontestably congenital and unattractive Grub Street trait, in a way we can’t blame them: a potential miscreant in the most squeaky clean, holier-than-thou family to have taken up residence at ‘Number 10’ in this or the last millennium is an attractive quarry for the cheap journalistic lunge, especially during such a tabloid-dead period as the present. Post Christmas, post New Year, post Millennium Dome disaster, River of Fire failure, fair wheel fiasco …., but oh look! here comes the Prime Minister’s wife travelling in the South of England with only Portuguese Escudos to hand, and looking, well, really SILLY!

But actually there is something of far more interest here than a sad everyday tale of Westminster folk, and it revolves around the operation of the law – The London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Act 1992 to be precise – with which Mrs Blair appears to have been, frankly, bludgeoned. It’s a bad law, and my advice Judge Blair, is quite simple: think twice before paying. At the very least this should allow us to keep a bit of soap opera alive through the long winter nights, but it could also – rather more importantly – help a rethink of this piece of legal foolishness. Now I shall tell you a story, so listen up Judge!

Once upon a time, on the morning of 30th. July 1998, a bloke who lives in provincial South Oxfordshire took a one stop journey on the London underground from Highbury & Islington to King’s Cross. The ticket office was closed, there were such humungous queues for all the ticket machines that the said machines were not even visible in front of the queues, and there was a general air – typical one suspects of the London rush hour – of third world chaos. There was no one to ask about tickets, no visible information to hand, and quite a lot of pushing and shoving of the sort a rustic lad does not enjoy, but our hero nevertheless patiently queued for a machine. Arriving eventually, and with a certain sense of triumph, at the front of one of the numerous queues he was greeted by a dumb machine detailing only a multiple choice list of possible ticket prices with no reference to particular stations, and a hot and belligerent crowd behind waiting impatiently to purchase their own tickets. Reasoning that the cheapest adult single ticket available was 80p, our hero decided to play safe and pay the princely sum of £1.10. Anything for a quiet life. In many ways he was not unlike Judge Blair.

Arriving at King’s Cross ten minutes later he noted with exasperation that the exit machine would not accept his recently purchased and arguably overpriced ticket. Inquiring of an LT officer as to the cause of the problem he discovered that the correct fare for one stop, for approximately one and a half miserable minutes of travel, turned out to be in fact 20p more expensive, coming in at a mean £1.30. At the time of writing the cost of this single stop journey has increased to a staggering £1.80. By the time you have read this sentence it will probably be as cheap to travel it by taxi, or possibly Concorde.

We need not be detained here (although clearly someone elswhere ought to be) over the logic which renders a one stop fare as the third least cheap adult fare within the system, and indeed nor was the chap in question. He went forthwith to the excess fares window to stump up the extra 20p in the hope of getting out of a noisy, busy, badly lit underground station as soon as possible. But this generous offer was met with a reply from the man at the excess fares window which seemed to have issued not from a booth at a public service counter but from deep within a Monty Python sketch. Only the deadpan but undeniable hostility of the repost gave the game away: “20p excess. That will be £10.00 please. Thank you!” Inquiring of this remnant of humanity as to why an honest 20p mistake required a pecuniary punishment fifty times greater than the original error engendered a reply of such facile, patronising, bureaucratic stupidity that our hero paid the 20p, gave his name and address as required by law, and exited with all possible speed from this lunatic asylum masquerading as a modern transport system. This chap had in fact been served with the same type of £10 penalty fare as that recently received by our heroine Judge Blair.

Now this person, who from now on for the sake of simplicity and economy (not to mention veracity), will be refered to as ‘me’ or ‘I’, received, a week later, a demand from London Underground Limited (LUL) for payment of the penalty fare. I wrote back to a Mr. Naylor in the employ of LUL explaining the circumstances, in undisturbed confidence that the demand would duly be revoked. But you will have already guessed that the matter did not so terminate. Over the ensuing weeks and months I received, with increasing volume and vehemence, numerous demands from our ‘friend’ Mr. Naylor. I shall not bore you with this collection of bureaucratic pulchritude, although a Doctorate in English could flow from a proper treatment of its grammatical sangfroid and manifest verbal inelegance. I resolved instead to engage the help of the Consumers Association, which operates a legal help organisation known as ‘WHICH’. The lady on the other end of the ‘phone of this bizarrely named organisation (WHY-BOTHER-RINGING would be more apposite in this particular case) replied that I should pay up as London Transport could get quite nasty about these things. So I contacted the London Regional Passengers Committee (LRPC) whose statutory mandate, so they say, is the protection of the interests of passengers. At first they would do nothing except tell me, in similar vein, to pay up. But then I placed, at the bottom of one of my letters to them, a note that the missive would be circulated to my MP, and they suddenly responded with quite extraordinary alacrity and friendliness, and agreed to take my case to appeal. Such nice people. That would surely be that for Mr. Naylor and his demands.

Not so. True, for quite a while all was silence. But as I began to face the prospect of a future bereft of Mr Naylor’s missives, whose utter wretchedness and stultifying blandness I had now almost begun to miss in a twisted sort of way, the appeal result plopped, as they say, on the mat. It was the LRPC. Terribly sorry. Appeal unsuccessful. Game over. Please pay up. Mr Naylor’s demands, like some minor but irritating ailment, returned with increased regularity and ferocity. Friends advised me to throw in the towel on such a piffling matter, which was surely not worth the time or energy.

But as with all true dramas there comes, sooner or later, a moment of apparent random deviation from the appalling, terrifying path of the normal and the expected. His name was Mr. Colbey.

Mr. Colbey, if I am to be fair, arrived via the services of the lady at the recently maligned WHY-BOTHER-RINGING legal service. She had mentioned to me, in the slightly weary manner of a parent addressing a tiresome child, the name of a man who she thought had written what she referred to (tenderly pronouncing but surely not understanding the word) as an ‘esoteric’ article on the subject of penalty fares. The author, dear reader, was the eponymous J. Colbey, barrister. I managed to get hold of this piece of alleged esoterica and discovered that, on the contrary, it was down to earth, and, damn good. My saviour had arrived.

I learnt for example that my first letter to the erstwhile Mr. Naylor constituted a ‘relevant statement in due time as defined by the Act Section (5)’, which meant in plain English that it was not up to me to prove my innocence to Mr. Naylor, but it was up to his organisation to prove the contrary in a court of law before I could be legally obliged to pay up. Naylor had thus been transformed in the space of a single clause from prosecutor, judge and jury, into little more than a common plaintiff. Think of the headline – “Oxfordshire man taken to court by London Underground Limited for ……. 20p error.” But there was more. With a little detective work I obtained the wondrous Colbey’s office telephone number. I faxed him details of my story, and he returned my fax with some scrawled sentences on the back. He considered me, as he put it, “legally bang to rights..” These glad and beautifully expressed tidings from the faceless Mr. Naylor’s new alter ego immediately placed me on the offensive. I dropped into a local law library and studied the relevant Acts of Parliament. The Regulation of Railways Act 1889 is still employed in cases of criminal prosecution, and enshrines a wonderful Victorian sense of justice. Intention to defraud is the crime upon which it turns. The aforementioned 1992 Act however is a draconian and mean little catch all replete with the worst aspects of Thatcherite authoritarianism. However it does lay certain duties and responsibilities upon organisations such as LUL which, according to my interpretation (and also others more legally qualified than I), had not been discharged.

Actually LUL seemed to be in breach of a number of clauses. I reckoned that if they took me to court you could drive a legal coach and horses the size of an Al Fayed action through their case. Mr. Naylor and his crew seemed to bear more than a passing resemblance not to so much to this recently victorious courthouse ‘personality’, but to the unfortunate Shylock. Insisting on the contract with an excess of exactitude over common sense they risked that exactitude might prove their own downfall in a court. And if they lost, a quite disasterous precedent would be set for them. To quote a member of the legal profession “if [you].. challenge LT to sue I think it inconceivable that it would actually persist.” Are you still there Mrs. Blair? I wrote to two parties communicating some of these matters on a very generalised level: our very own Mr. Naylor, and Rufus Barnes, the Director of the Passengers Committee. Mr. Barnes’ friendly reply contains some quite staggering admissions. “I cannot comment on your legal advice” he opined “…..we do not have legally qualified staff”. Err…just run that one past me one more time – the LRPC was set up by the London Regional Transport Act 1984, and subsequently amended by the Railways Act 1993, yet its statutory injunction to support the interests of the passenger is unsupported by legally qualified staff? What have the civil servants been doing?

As for my former adversary, matters had by now been taken well out of poor Mr. Naylor’s hands. Instead the next communication came from a company announcing itself (actually denouncing would be more apposite) as “Revenue Collection Services / Debt Management and Recovery.” I shall quote this missive verbatim, it is a real classic of its kind:

“Dear Sir/Madam, We are responsible for the collection of your overdue debt and all payments must be made to this office at the above address. Settlement IN FULL is demanded BY RETURN in order to avoid legal proceedings. In the event of a Court judgement being given against you, additional legal fees and solicitors costs may be added to your debt and your name will be recorded in the Register of County Court Judgements. This may make it difficult for you to obtain credit in the future. A PAYMENT SLIP IS INCLUDED BELOW – ACT NOW. Yours faithfully, B.R.Hutton, Manager Revenue Collection Services.”

This, for the sake of an honest 20p mistake, is the sort of nonsense which our nation’s capital city transport system spends its tax payers money on. Instead of contenting itself with the extraordinarily difficult task of providing sufficient regular, punctual, comfortable trains, LUL wastes precious administration time on jobs like Mr. Naylor’s. Not his fault of course – he is probably a decent person caught in a dreary job on, no doubt, a dreary salary. I showed this would-be debt collector’s letter, this insulting piece of officially sanctioned harassment, to a number of legal types. Without exception it was considered to be deliberately intimidatory. It is certainly unpleasant, and in referring to the penalty fare as an overdue debt it is legally incorrect. As Colbey wrote – “There is of course no obligation to pay until and unless LT obtains a court order”. However, he continued, faced with such tactics “The law abiding but occasionally absent-minded or hurried passenger is much more likely to be intimidated into paying.” As a result many people, I have discovered, simply pay up out of fear.

This is no way to run a public system. LUL seems to have forgotten why the law exists and in what it consists. And of course the Government is aware of this. During 1998 the Minister of Transport for London, one of the prospective Labour candidates for Mayor of London, one Glenda Jackson MP, asked LT to conduct a review of its practise with respect to the Act in conjunction with the LRPC. I am not sure how successful it was – I recently saw an LUL employee at Paddington station giving what looked like a German tourist one of our £10 penalty fares. Should do wonders for our image abroad. What is really sad about this whole affair is that the motive for the 1992 Act is commendable. According to John Waite, the LUL Penalty Fares Manager who wrote to me in September 1998, “The London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Act 1992 was designed to deter customers from travelling without a valid ticket, in order to reduce the estimated £30 million that is lost in revenue per year as a direct result of ticketless travel.” A laudable end, with a well stated principle. The problem Mr. Waite, is that due to the belligerent manner in which LUL is prosecuting the act it provokes the opposite effect: rather than pay the £10 people refuse to give any name and address, or simply give a false name and address, or jump the barrier, or go through the barrier two at a time, or simply ignore the letters. In such a way LUL not only wastes valuable management resources and loses the £10 penalty fare, it also loses the original ticket revenue from all those passengers would happily pay. In my case LUL has had my 20p excess fare since the day of the journey on July 30 1998, and has therefore at no point suffered a loss in fare revenue, yet it has probably wasted hundreds of pounds of tax payers money in an absurd process which has failed to relieve me (some would say highway-rob me) of an extra £10.

So, Judge Blair, your duty is clear. Read Colbey’s article ‘Dodgy Penalties’ (New Law Journal May 15 1998) and within three weeks of the date of the alleged offence send the company concerned a letter disputing the imposition of the penalty fare. If on the other hand the ticket office at Blackfriars station really was open, as the company says…..then perhaps you should obtain some local UK currency (I beleive that your next door neighbour may be able to help on this one) and until such time as said neighbour and your husband find a way to equip us with the dreaded Euro, perhaps you had better pay up. As for those of us outside of the VIP enclosure, let’s not be intimidated by behaviour that smacks more of the playground bully than a publicly funded transport service.

© Marshall Marcus for Chameleonworld UK. February 2000.