Given that its reputation is in shreds, you’d have thought that Northern, as it goes through its death throes as the region’s principal rail operator, would be moving heaven and earth to win back the hearts and minds of all those its lamentable service has disenfranchised
But its latest attempt at public relations demonstrates that it has learned nothing from the multiple fiascos of strikes, botched timetables, breakdowns and general incompetence that have defined its operation.
It ought to be offering free travel weekends to begin to make amends for the damage its late-running services continue to wreak on so many lives. Instead, it has fallen back on its old standby of criminalising the passengers, with a stern press release “reminding” children to buy tickets for their journeys.
This travesty comes less than two years after Northern was supposed to have abandoned its controversial practice of handing out “telling-off” notices to people as they queued to buy tickets after getting off their trains. It had stood accused of bullying vulnerable passengers by tricking them into joining the queue and then fining them.
A 16-year-old girl who was bundled out of Leeds Station on her first day at college had been wrongly told: “Right then, little miss – you’re breaking the law” by one high-handed oik. When the girl’s father complained to his MP of intimidation, the story was echoed on social media by other passengers who had also been picked out as “soft targets”.
The victims had not been trying to avoid paying. They were queuing for their tickets with money in their hands.
Fast-forward to today and we find Northern crowing about its inspectors stopping and questioning children in West Yorkshire as they make their way to and from school. Some are being refused travel. Parents are being summoned to pick them up. The company is threatening “very serious consequences in the form of a criminal record”.
Northern claims it is acting in the name of “revenue protection”. And of course, fare-dodging – if indeed there has been any here – is not to be encouraged.
But that’s not the point. Its action is bullying by any other name. Its tinpot ticket inspectors are not the police; they are not arbiters of guilt and nor are they trained to deal with the vulnerable. They are not authority figures either; they are strangers from whom children should very sensibly run away.
Northern’s requirement to buy a ticket before boarding, rather than after, is in any case compromised by the continued presence of guards selling them inside the carriages – a practice that has historically earned them commission. And given that nearly one train in two now runs late, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to pay upfront on the off-chance that the next one may turn up.
Leaving aside the company’s misconceived take on public relations – not bothering to keep passengers informed but taking every opportunity to hector them – it is going to have to realise that it is not in a position to claim the moral high ground on anything. The boot is on the other foot. It’s the service that’s criminal, not the people who use it.
Several MPs warned Northern two years ago that it risked its franchise if it mismanaged its new system of fining passengers who had not bought their tickets in advance. Since then, the elected mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, have joined the chorus calling for it to be derailed. Finally, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced to the Commons last month that he had taken the first steps towards doing just that.
But the company’s continued and unashamed heavy-handedness demonstrates that change must come on the platform, not just in the boardroom. Parents will be horrified at the thought of their children having to run the gauntlet of intimidating staff with ideas above their station. Many are not even full-time employees. It can only be a matter of time before someone takes an allegation of harassment before the courts, and it will serve Northern right.
Its default position right now ought to be on its knees, grovelling to anyone who will listen. Its latest press release demonstrates that far from improving, it is getting worse.
And its behaviour is not the result of the “circumstances beyond its control”, that are its usual mantra, but of the fundamental contempt for the travelling public that appears written into its DNA. It’s high time we reminded its inspectors, and all the rest of them, where to get off.