Jayne Dowle: Time to rail against all bullying officials

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I WAS once thrown off a train by one of those uniformed inspectors who think they are God because they wear a name badge. I was travelling to London for work and I really didn’t need the hassle of getting off the train and waiting for the next one in the rain, cursing myself for my big mouth.

The inspector, you see, had taken
issue with the ticket I was travelling on and attempted to make me buy another one at a sum that was not far off the cost of my first car. My transgression? I had not realised the precise and particular nature of the ticket I had purchased.

Anxious to get to my appointment in London, I’d arrived at the station early, and hopped on the first train to St Pancras which pulled in. Little did I realise that this would be my downfall and possibly the start of my criminal record. I was shaking with indignation. I had made an innocent mistake and I was being treated as if I had attempted to steal a train.

I am glad then that the Government is stepping in to ensure that rail passengers who make similar innocent mistakes with their tickets are not dealt with like criminals. It plans to overhaul the rail penalty fare appeals procedure to allow passengers a fairer say. It doesn’t precisely say that it will teach ticket inspectors to get a grip on reality and stop behaving as if they rule the world, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

After all, it’s about time the rail companies cut us a bit of slack. Is it any wonder that people get confused?
There are so many fares available that
it is a miracle anyone ever gets on 
the right train, at the right time for 
the right price.

When I went to Manchester recently, I checked out the train times and cost of ticket on the National Rail Enquiries website before I set off. When I got to the station though I was pleasantly surprised – for once – to find that the ticket I was expecting to buy was actually five pounds cheaper. This was, as the nice young man in the ticket office explained, because I was travelling “off-peak”. I swear nothing on the website informed me of this, because I know I put the times of travel in to the dot.

All too often though, it works the
other way – usually to the cost of the paying passenger. I’ve sat on some trains and seen some things. One Sunday morning en route to the Edinburgh Festival, I witnessed a family with
three children, the youngest of whom clearly had special needs, treated appallingly.

There had been a mix-up over the reservations and the table seats they had booked were taken by people who had got on earlier. The inspector wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t help them find another table seat and wouldn’t let them sit in the almost-empty first class carriage. The bewildered family were stood in the aisle surrounded by bags and buggy. I ended up giving up my seat at York and letting them sit in my place. The disgusted look I shot at the inspector could have propelled him out of the window and onto the banking.

What redress did we have though? On a train, you’re trapped in a metal tube moving at a hundred miles an hour, at the mercy of those with the power. How, though, can the rail companies justify such heavy-handed treatment when all too often, their trains are late, over-crowded, filthy and either freezing cold or sweltering hot?

The Government’s plans to overhaul the penalty appeals procedure coincide with the publication of a report from consumer group Passenger Focus, which says that “the outlook for being caught making a mistake can still be bleak”. That’s what the rail companies need to keep in mind – a simple mistake is not serial fare-dodging.

It is good to see the consumer coming first for once. However, I don’t think the Government should rest on its laurels. I’d like to see this as the start of whole new way of looking at consumer rights. It’s not just the train companies who treat us like criminals. What about TV Licence enforcers, who bring in the bailiffs at the drop of a hat? What about the owners of certain car-parks who have the power to enforce fines of hundreds of pounds if a motorist inadvertently overstays their welcome? What about the bully-boy wheel-clampers, and the refuse collection companies who
put spy-cameras in the bottom of 
our bins?

We live in a democracy, not a shady police state. It’s about time the scales of justice tipped in our favour.