I travelled the journey from Falmer to London Road in about four minutes, and each minute of that journey cost me £5. Allow me to explain exactly how this happened and why I am now furious.
Everyone knows that feeling you get as you approach the train station and you dread seeing the train pull away just as you arrive. As it happened, I was fine: I checked the monitor and discovered that the train was arriving in about two minutes. I joined the back of the ticket office queue but it became painfully clear that I wouldn’t have a ticket by the time the train arrived. No problem, thought I. All the railway staff know that the ticket machine is broken and has not been replaced, so no-one can blame me for hopping on the train now and paying on the other side. I suspect you’re realising what might have happened.
I boarded the train and sat down. It was exactly six seconds before I was asked for my ticket. I informed the kind uniformed gentleman that I hadn’t had time to get one beforehand and so I was planning on buying one at the other end. He sat next to me and pulled out a wad of papers. I was then informed that I was being issued a Penalty Fare. In case you don’t know, a Penalty Fare is a £20 fine for travelling without a ticket. I told the good man that I hadn’t had a chance to buy one because the train would have left before I got it and the ticket machine was on holiday. Not my problem, the gentleman replied.
The smartly dressed fellow, accompanied by another uniformed chap, got off the train with me at London Road to finish explaining, very calmly, why it was that I was being fined. He told me that he had judged, in his professional opinion, that I was planning to avoid paying the ticket cost by getting off at London Road, and that he had been there at Falmer, and that I was wrong: there was plenty of time to buy a ticket. That there hadn’t even been a queue at all.
‘All the railway staff know that the ticket machine is broken and has not been replaced, so no one can blame me for hopping on the train now and paying on the other side’
Oh. Right. He took my name and address and told me that I could pay the fine at any Southern ticket office. His handsome uniformed colleague kindly told me that I could appeal against the decision by sending a copy of the Penalty Fare Notice along with a letter explaining why I could not produce a valid ticket when asked. This should all be sent to an address in London within 21 days. He recommended I send it recorded delivery. Otherwise it could get lost and I’d be fined again. The two smiled at one another. The two jolly chaps left me with the fine and chortled their way across the road and into the pub opposite, patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Into the pub.
To prevent me from vomiting with rage, I checked the official site to read the guidelines as soon as I could. There is no way to appeal by phone and there are no email addresses associated with the fines company (IPFAS) whatsoever. Their answer to “I’ve been issued a penalty fare. What should I do?” is that you should send them money. Not satisfied with this answer, I’ve dug a little deeper and found that there’s actually nothing anyone can do apart from sending them a letter – something I am not prepared to do when I feel wronged and there should be quicker and easier alternatives available. Even the customer service desks couldn’t care less. The fines are issued by ‘an independent company’. So when my contract killer comes for those two gentlemen, it’s nothing to do with me. The hitman is ‘an independent company’.
I suppose, in the end, the companies win. All writing this will have done (aside from preventing me from actually hiring a contract killer) is scare you into making sure you buy tickets before you travel. I’ve learnt a few things from this experience. Firstly, that the train companies are heartless and evil enterprises and secondly that the smarmy villains that work for them make this world a slightly more unpleasant place to live in.