Senseless fines driving rail passengers round the bend

Published by The Times (2nd November, 2017)

I went to Hull and back earlier this month. My trip was for work so I let the train take the strain. Despite the drizzly weather, the day went well. I enjoyed my fleeting visit to the fishing port and, having finished meetings early, decided to head home to London earlier than planned.

But I had not reckoned with Britain’s byzantine rail system. Things began well. A friendly woman at Hull station’s ticket office told me I could not get an earlier train without substantial extra cost, so instead sold me a £17 ticket to Doncaster after I asked if I could stop over. She even wrote the time of the train to catch there on the back of my original ticket.

I passed a couple of pleasant hours wandering around the Yorkshire town before returning to the station. When a train pulled up, I asked a uniformed railway worker if it was the 20.03 since it seemed early. No, he replied, the next one was mine. Shortly afterwards, a Virgin train arrived and the doors hissed open. I stepped inside, settled into my seat and attempted to follow Everton’s efforts in Europe on what passes for internet service on our trains. Even my football team’s latest flop did not dampen my good spirits — until the ticket inspector turned up.

On showing her my ticket, I was stunned to be told it was invalid and I must pay another £168. I pointed out I had followed advice from two rail officials. She insisted I should not have boarded at Doncaster and was on the wrong company’s train anyway.

Rather than cough up the cash I took an unpaid fare notice, confident the mistake would be rectified. No such luck. Despite sending a note explaining the situation, I received a letter filled with the usual formulaic jargon beloved by bureaucrats and lawyers from some outfit called Revenue Protection Support Services rejecting my appeal.

Since I remember the dirty carriages and dismal punctuality of British Rail, I am in the minority of voters who support rail privatisation. Yes, I know it was bungled by John Major’s ministers and understand public fury over swollen fares and packed commuter trains. But I have seen significant improvements reflected in soaring use, extra services and an impressive safety record.

This is one tiny incident. Yet what hope is there for passengers when even rail staff cannot be trusted to navigate the maze of the system, and a simple day trip turns into a costly nightmare? No wonder the fight against nationalisation is being lost.

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