Right, well first a bit of background. I have been a daily South West Trains customer for over three years now. The cost of me getting to and from Guildford and London Waterloo for work amounts to just over £3000 a year – so not entirely cheap. The ticket itself allowed me to alight at any London terminal. My views on the service (or lack thereof) of South West Trains and its staff are well documented on the archive of the great Twitter.
My brother recently moved to Twickenham. It’s a lovely place and, as I do enjoy banter with my younger sibling I visit regularly – this weekend I was cat-sitting for his gorgeous two kittehs. Normally the season ticket gets me from London Waterloo to Clapham Junction, so at Waterloo/Twickenham I tend to purchase tickets that cover the remainder of the journey.
Yesterday I travelled from Twickenham to Vauxhall to see the lovely Sophie for drinks on the awesome boat pub. I went to Twickenham station and purchased a ticket to Clapham Junction like I normally do, with my season ticket covering the very short (one stop) journey from CJ to Vauxhall. By the time I got to Vauxhall, I had an “oh bugger” moment. I entirely forgot that my season ticket had expired the day before.
No matter, I thought. I’m not a fare jumper and I wouldn’t attempt to get by the guard at the barrier without asking to pay for a single ticket from Clapham Junction to Vauxhall. After all, it was my error.
I’d like to stress at this point that I’m not a fare jumper. Even when I’ve known I could get away with it, even though the service I believe we all get from SWT is frankly appalling, I have never engaged in the dishonesty of not buying a ticket. I wish to also point out that it would be very odd to fare jump one stop when you’ve paid for the remaining 95% of the journey already.
Turns out that my ticket from Twickenham to Clapham Junction costs £3.60. How much do you reckon a ticket from Twickenham to Vauxhall is? That’s right. £3.60. So I was fined for fare dodging when there was absolutely no fare to dodge.
The gentleman I approached was your typical SWT “customer service” staffer in that the default response to any question was to give you a facial expression as if you just asked to shit in his hat. I explained my situation and asked if it would be possible to purchase a single ticket.
His response: £20 penalty fare.
I protested. He said SWT policy means I get an automatic penalty fare. I told him that that was not true – I’ve seen plenty of people less interested in paying for a ticket than I was get one from the comfort of their own train seat from a commercial guard. He refused to acknowledge that. At this point I asked if I could have my tickets back (he was holding on to all three – the single from Twickenham, the return I was to use later and my receipt) and he “informed” me that the tickets always remain the property of SWT and can be withdrawn at any time.
He then proceeded to grab a black notebook from his pocket and asked me to put my name, my address and my date of birth on a blank page. The conversation then went something like this:
Me: What happens to that data?
Him: What data?
Me: You’re asking me to put down my personal data in your notebook including my date of birth, I’m asking you as a representative of this company bound by data protection laws what will happen to my personal data?
Him: It’s not just your data, it’s our data.
Me: I think you’ll find my date of birth, my name and my address is my personal data.
I took issue with him asking me to write them down in a notebook. Was it an SWT notebook? Was it his personal one? Either way, Sophie was waiting for me outside the station so I just did it – I had little appetite or time right then to kick up a stink that probably would have ended up involving the BTP. Nevertheless, SWT will get a data protection act request on this and I’ll pursue it formally. I did ask him if I had a choice as to whether I provided that data or not. He said no.
He then phoned somebody up, of whom I can only assume are the people who authorise penalty fares. He did not relay my story whatsoever, he simply said “He had a ticket from Twickenham to Clapham Junction and he’s got off here at Vauxhall”.
So long story short, he told me that I didn’t have to pay anything today (I didn’t thank him) and that I had the right to appeal. He filled in a slip, made me sign it, and I have 21 days to make up my mind on the matter. He gave me my tickets back. I then had lots of wine with Sophie.
There will be people who says this serves me right and I *would* accept the penalty fare if:
- There were grounds for reasonable doubt that I had made an honest mistake. Paying 95% of the fare (and displaying my expired season ticket) is rarely done by those dodging.
- I had tried being dishonest and hadn’t approached him by my own volition to request that I pay for the entire journey.
- The “service” I and many others have to endure on SWT daily makes a penalty fare for somebody who has been a customer for three years on what many consider to be an extortionate amount to spend to get to work makes this a slap in the face.
I am moving to London soon, so I will never have to pay any more of my money to that sorry company again, but yesterday really riled me up. Because of their effective monopoly on trains, their service is appalling and their staff often convince me they have qualifications in being unhelpful and rude. The train guards are all too quick to forget that we’re not school children in his own personal moving classroom, we are paying customers.
We do not get automatic refunds from our £3k season tickets every time the rail network goes into chaos and we miss important meetings or are unable to get to work. I have experienced far too many of those situations which makes a penalty fare for a small journey where I solicited to pay for a ticket to cover it double unpalatable.
I don’t think I can say this any clearer. South West Trains, you know exactly where you can shove that penalty fare. I won’t pay it. I will not subject myself to your appeals process. You’ll have to take me to court, but I will spend many of my spare hours over the next few months making sure the fragmented moans on Twitter of your customers are harnessed and listened to by your sorry company.