Plans to change the way fare dodging rail passengers are punished have been outlined by the Department for Transport.
Ministers want to make the process simpler following accusations that it is unfair and lacks consistency.
The proposals are in response to reports into the issue by independent watchdog Transport Focus (TF) which explained that, under current arrangements, train operators are “the victim, the investigators, the decision makers and the prosecutor”.
It described this as a “powerful position” and declared that “the whole system requires an overhaul”.
TF said the outlook for passengers mistakenly accused of fare dodging is “bleak”, and warned that some passengers are being threatened with criminal sanctions despite no evidence they were attempting to commit fraud.
The proposals announced by the DfT include:
:: Clearer rules on deadlines for payments and appeals
:: Making appeals bodies independent of train operators and their owners
:: The creation of a third-stage independent appeals panel
:: Stronger DfT oversight of the appeals process through an annual audit of penalty fares data
Rail minister Paul Maynard said: “Fare dodgers cost the railways £240 million every year and this bill is picked up by honest passengers in the form of higher rail fares.
“Penalty fares are imposed to deter those seeking a free ride but mistakes do happen and where a passenger feels they have been unfairly treated, they need to be confident that there is a robust and independent process in place to deal with their appeal.”
The DfT has pledged to work with the rail industry to ensure passengers and staff understand how the penalty fares regime works to avoid warnings about criminal sanctions being made inappropriately.
TF chief executive Anthony Smith said: “It is right that train companies should take steps to stop passengers who try to evade paying fares. But those who have made an innocent mistake and been caught out by the rules should be treated with understanding and not immediately assumed to be guilty.
“Transport Focus is pleased to see the Government has listened to complaints from passengers and the issues we raised in our 2012 and 2015 Ticket to Ride reports. Greater fairness, accountability and an independent right of appeal will be welcomed by passengers who make an honest mistake.”
Figures from just five train companies showed that between them they issued over 16,500 Unpaid Fare Notices in the year up to the end of March 2013.
In addition nearly 11,000 cases were prepared for prosecution, with about half being settled before reaching the courts.