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 appeals bodies.
Measures for public consultation include requiring train operators to remove the reference to criminal sanctions in letters chasing penalty fare payment.
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, a civil offence, is not appropriate. Criminal sanctions will apply in 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 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.”
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 were able to later produce valid tickets or good excuses for travelling without authorisation.
One case that 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 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 chairman 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, of the Rail Delivery Group which represents rail operators and Network Rail, said the industry understands the need to get a balance being firm with fare-dodgers while fairly treating those who make an honest mistake.”