I got my £20 penalty fare back from GTR

Tuesday 12th May 2020

GTR 7.jpeg

Back in the carefree pre Covid-19 days of travelling around the country for pleasure, on Wednesday 5th March, I found myself on a train from my local station, Hassocks in Sussex, up to London to seek out hydrogen fuelled buses on TfL route 444 before they were withdrawn from service.

I’d missed the Thameslink train I’d originally intended to take and caught the next train instead, which was a Southern train. The only problem was I had a one-day Travelcard marked ‘Thameslink only’ which became an issue as, when we passed through the Gatwick Airpot area, Southern ticket inspectors were out that morning and advised me the ticket wasn’t valid on a Southern train and I’d have to pay a £20 penalty fare.


Now there’s been a lot of debate on on-line rail forums over the years about the veracity of the DfT allowing tickets which are only valid on particular branded trains (eg ‘Thameslink only’) within the GTR “franchise”, which is of course a management contract covering four different branded train operations.

Under the National Rail Conditions of Travel (NRCoT), it is argued, tickets can only be restricted to travel on a Train Operating Company, rather than individual brands. And, as we know Thameslink and Southern (and Great Northern and Gatwick Express) are merely brands which all sit within the GTR Train Operating Company.

‘Thameslink only’ tickets began on the Brighton line in the days when GoVia first held the Thamesiink franchise and Connex ran the Southern (South Central) franchise. It was a GoVia rouse to cream off ticket revenue from Connex rather than sharing ‘any permitted’ ticket sales between Brighton and London. Subsequently the South Central franchise passed from Connex to GoVia and the Thameslink franchise passed to First Group (as First Capital Connect) but the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ (and ‘First Capital Connect only’) tickets continued as they still do now that GTR runs all the operations within the one company, but with separate brands. It’s been too controversial for the DfT to withdraw these cheaper tickets which are popular with passengers; in the same way they perpetuate the more expensive ‘Gatwick Express only’ tickets.

The ticket inspector was very pleasant about charging me the excess £20 so I decided not to pursue the point about the NRCoT but just make some enquiries of her about what she understood to be the situation. When she explained to me that “Thameslink and Southern are separate companies just like Sainsbury’s and Tesco” I replied I didn’t think that was correct pointing out they were in fact both part of one company (GTR) with one managing director (Patrick Verwer). This seemed to be news to her but it concerned me even more when she explained I was restricted to using my ‘Thameslink only’ Travelcard to Thameslink trains in London (including within zones 1-6). I asked her if she could clarify whether I could use the ticket on that very Southern train between East Croydon and London Victoria to which she surprised me by saying “no, you can only use it on a Thameslink train; it’s a ‘Thameslink only’ ticket”.

I decided to pursue the point further and asked if I could use it on a train between, say Clapham Junction and Waterloo operated by SWR. “No”, she replied, repeating again that I “could only use it on a Thamlesink train”, exasperatingly adding “it’s marked ‘Thameslink only’”.

I asked what I could use it on in London and she explained a Travelcard is valid on TfL buses and the Underground, but “as it’s marked ‘Thameslink only’ it’s only valid on Thameslink trains”.

This, of course, is complete nonsense and it’s concerning a ticket inspector employed to ensure correct tickets are valid is completely ignorant about the scope of a Travelcard; one of the most popular selling tickets for those travelling into and within London on trains.

It’s also rather ironic that the ‘Penalty Fare notice/receipt’ is issued by ‘Govia Thameslink Railway’ with all four of GTR’s branded logos displayed – confirming they are all one and the same company, despite the belief of my friendly, but sadly, very ill-informed ticket inspector.

GTR 2.jpeg

I decided to appeal the £20 penalty fare to Penalty Services, a set up based in Woodbridge in Suffolk which reviews penalty fares issued by a range of Train Operating Companies across the country, including GTR.

The appeal process is available online (as well as by post) and is fairly simple to engage with. Interestingly the online process begins with you having to click on the Train Operating Company which has issued your Penalty Fare Notice and again all GTR’s brands are shown as one – not exactly Sainsbury’s separate from Tesco.

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I submitted my statement of appeal, explaining the point about the National Rail Conditions of Travel only appertaining to a Train Operating Company and tickets can only be restricted to a company’s train operations rather than sub-brands within and looked forward to a “test case” being determined, as I couldn’t see evidence of one online in the various forums.

I received a letter dated 17 March from Penalty Services confirming they’d received my appeal dated 6 March but ”unfortunately we are unable to finalise your appeal at the present time as we are awaiting details for the original Penalty Notice from the train company”.

The explained “train companies have an obligation to provide this information to PSL and have a deadline in which to do so.  We should be in a position to proceed shortly, please be assured that we will update this case and respond to you as soon as possible”.

That sounded good, I thought, although slightly concerning GTR’s processes (this was pre Covid) hadn’t caught up with submitting the details.

Six days later on Lockdown day, 23rd March, I received a long letter from Penalty Services (extract shown below) which in summary said GTR had failed to provide the paperwork and therefore “I’m pleased to advise that the penalty fare charge has been cancelled” and …. “where a refund is due, GTR will issue a cheque by post to the passenger who received the Penalty Fare within 10 working days”.

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I wasn’t holding out much hope of receiving a cheque within 10 days, not least because I guessed GTR was getting snowed under with refund applications from season ticket holders following the lockdown. After a month I decided to send a gentle reminder to Southern’s customer services they owe me £20. They replied on 1st May to “confirm the relevant staff have processed your cheque and this should reach you within the next 20 working days”. (It always amazes me how long it takes for these things to be “processed”).

And that’s why this story ends today, because the postman has finally delivered a cheque for £20 dated 5th May in today’s post, Tuesday 12th May, ten weeks after being charged the penalty fare. The final irony being it’s a cheque from GTR (not Southern)!

And frustratingly I still don’t know whether the validity of a “Thameslink only” ticket is of questionable veracity… unless any readers can confirm they’ve successfully appealed?

I should add, I normally only do use a ‘Thameslink only’ ticket on Thameslink trains; there was an element of absent mindedness that morning but as events turned out I thought it would make for an interesting test case; alas, it proved not to be.

Roger French

24 thoughts on “I got my £20 penalty fare back from GTR

Add yours

  1. Yes it would have been valid on southern or any other operating company within greater London except Heathrow express and and South Eastern high speed to Stratford international so the inspector is wrong on that point but it clearly says it’s only valid on Thameslink so isn’t valid on southern outside of greater London.although gtr is one franchise it operates as 4 separate companies other examples of this are West Midlands and London North Western and South Western and island line.i suppose another one, from the past, would be British Rail under the sectors;you had network south east, regional and inter city(plus trainload freight and Freightliner) and you had some tickets NSE only and I’m guessing regional railways and inter City only….this dear boy is divide and rule .Thatcherism in action until it all goes wrong and all of a sudden the Thatcherites start demanding bailouts from a state safety net they professed not to believe in!


  2. Surely by her logic the Travelcard I get when I travel from Stoke to London on the slow train (marked WMR & LNR only) would only be valid in London on LNR services. So I’d be restricted to travelling in and out of Euston? This seems plain wrong as the last time I did it, I was able to pass the gates at Waterloo and use SWR trains.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yet again another demonstration of how poor the training is for customer-facing staff on today’s railway.
    It’s probably worth noting that a “revenue protection inspector” on a TOC nowadays is not the highly experienced supervisory grade that the old Travelling Ticket Inspector was; many, in fact, are agency staff on zero hours contracts with all that implies for their training and experience. I’ve had run ins with so-called inspectors myself when travelling on duty and in uniform, and off duty with my ex-BR old fart’s staff travelcard.
    Doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that this one was spouting rubbish.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The suggestion that a TOC-restricted outboundary Travelcard is only valid on the named TOC within the covered Zones is certainly an ‘interesting’ take on what a ticket being a Travelcard means.

    For someone with that poor a grasp on the basics of ticketing knowledge it comes as no surprise that they’d struggle to see the inherent conflict between suggesting that it’s alike to Tesco vs Sainsbury’s or BA vs Virgin (the other old chestnut that’s often pulled out), when their own paperwork confirms they’re all one and the same company.

    They are of course entirely incorrect – Thameslink and Southern are both just subbrands of the same one legal entity of GTR. The NRCoT do not, contrary to the inaccurate non-contractual information box on page 12, allow for restrictions to or from a subset of a company’s services. Either they are all up for grabs or none are.

    This being the case, “Thameslink only” can only possibly mean “Govia Thameslink Ltd. only”, in other words the only restriction that applies is on using GWR services between Gatwick Airport and Redhill. An onerous limitation indeed!

    GTR know this full well at a higher corporate level and accordingly refund penalty fares or other penalties applied to passengers travelling on the “wrong” brand, once it is escalated high enough. You just have to get above the first or second level “grunts” (sorry) for someone who knows the score to look at your case.

    In your case it sounds like they were simply too snowed under to actually deal with your Penalty Fare in the permitted timeframe and accordingly you won by default. It’s probably for the best, since Penalty Services’ appeals are handled by case handlers who are just as incompetent and unknowledgeable as the RPIs that issue many Penalty Fares.

    It is still worthwhile using the relevant appeals process because any appeal response (positive or negative) protects you from prosecution in respect of the offence in question – a guarantee that surprisingly does not apply through mere payment of the Penalty Fare.

    So if you appeal quickly enough you can actually not pay it at all, and have the appeals body make their inevitable rejection of your appeal that “I like Mickey Mouse”. And then you can no longer be prosecuted – merely sued (a process the TOCs simply do not engage in, and much less serious even if they did).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was going to argue that using a Thameslink only ticket on a Southern train is like trying to use an Argos gift voucher in Sainsburys. Same company, different shop.

    Well it turns out that you can.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That would be like trying to use a “Northern only” ticket on CrossCountry, during the time when the two franchises were both under Arriva ownership. Morally nothing wrong with it, but entirely legal to be penalised for it in most circumstances, as they are two separate legal entities and train companies. It’s not about the ownership or anything like that, it’s purely about the legal entities at hand.


      1. I’m not sure it’s quite the same – all the different Arriva franchises have been separate and unrelated franchises that just happen to have the same parent company – whereas the GTR franchise is, as far as I can see, a single operation on one huge franchise. On that basis, it would be more akin to GWR having tickets from London to Reading that were for stopping trains only (although bizarrely they do have different compensation schemes).

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It all depends on what Thameslink means does it mean; the franchise:go via Thameslink,does it mean the sub brand or pseudo TOC Thameslink or does it mean the rail line called the Thameslink?as go via Thameslink also do tickets southern only, Gatwick express only and Great Northern/Thameslink only I’d suggest the first?these 4 go via Thameslink parts are in effect operated as separate companies for example the recent problem with industrial relations on Southern didn’t effect the other 3 sub companies.i suspect if you had failed to get your money back and took the matter to the small claims court you would win as it is very ambiguous as to what Thameslink means of course it would be too much effort and cost for £20!these internal splits in franchises are quite a recent phenomena we also,as I mentioned before have West Midlands/London North Western and SWR/island line previously it was the other way around xc/wc/ec just called Virgin trains although 3 separate franchises at different times,connex tried this with South Eastern and South Central and so did national express with Anglia/ec..


    1. The intention of the restriction on the part of GTR is to restrict you to services advertised under their Thameslink brand. I don’t think there is a strong argument to be made that it’s unclear this is the invention, given that GTR is only mentioned when it comes to the small-print, and all the branding, announcements and so forth are brand segregated.

      However it is, as always, not about the morality of the thing but the legal position. Which is that you can’t restrict tickets to specific parts of TOCs by brand due to the limitations of the NRCoT.


  7. Re Kevan’s comments, as has been said, there is only one legal entity that has a franchise agreement with the Government and that is Govia Thameslink Railway Limited. A “brand” can not make a legal agreement.

    I have discovered that there is an error on the website southernrailway.com. All business websites are legally required to state the company name, company registration number and the address of the registered office. The website correctly states Govia Thameslink Railway Limited and the Newcastle address but gives the registration number as 06574965 which is actually the number for Southern Railway Limited. I suspect that the website wasn’t updated properly when the franchise changed in 2015 however GTR could be prosecuted for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This would mean that their southern only and Gatwick express only tickets are equally valid on any go via Thameslink brand?so people paying more for the, slightly, faster Victoria to Gatwick non stop Gatwick express only tickets are wasting their money ?the great northern/Thameslink (I don’t think that they do Great Northern only or Thameslink only?)to say Peterborough are different as the other service is lner not part of their franchise.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I guess the implications of a successful appeal, rather than one won by default, would have an impact for premium Gatwick Express fares. I wouldn’t shed a tear for GTR over this since the arrival of 387s which make the southern units the far more comfortable train! A cynic might dare suggest that this was an appeal GTR chose not to fight……perhaps someone there recognised the name of the appealant!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Greater Anglia are make some changes and services increase from the 18th May. What is happening to the normal Spring timetable changes who knows. Probably parked for the time being


  11. You did well to get your money back.
    NRCoT does allow restrictions by brand: “Restrictions may be applied to services departing or arriving at certain times; to the services of one or more specified Train Companies; or to groups of train services indicated by a particular brand name or identity.”
    That’s in both the March 2018 and December 2019 NRCoT.

    You’re quite right that the inspector didn’t know what she was talking about re the validity of the ticket within the London Fare Zones 1-6.

    As per previous comments, Southern is a different company (06574965) from the rest of GTR (07934306); Great Northern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink are just brands.
    The franchise agreement is at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/792627/tsgn-franchise-agreement.pdf, which may help unravel the distinction between the companies and brands. It runs to 800 pages, so I gave up.

    Re Bob’s comment yesterday: the new timetable starts from 18th May throughout National Rail. It won’t be the full timetable planned to start at that date (still reduced due to coronavirus). But don’t assume it’s the same on your line next week as it is this week.


    1. If this is the case is island line a separate company for swr and London North Western from West Midlands?it would seem to defeat the object of merging franchises if the companies remain separate.what a mess, John major,one our most forgotten PM’s, unless you are Edwin Curry!,has delivered.


    2. It’s easy to be mislead by the NRCoT and that mendacious little information box! The phrase you quote does not form part of the contract because it is in an information box and on page 3, in Part A, we are told:

      “We have included a number of ‘information’ panels and/or footnotes to help you understand
      the meaning of certain Conditions. Please note that these panels and footnotes are for
      explanations only and do not form part of a Train Company’s contract with you.” If it’s supposed to be an ‘explanation’, it’s a pretty misleading one!

      Now, Condition 13.1 specifically says that “if no specific route or Train Company is shown, then (subject to any time restrictions for the type of fare you have purchased) it will be valid on: …” and then goes on to explain what permitted routes are.

      So in other words, a ticket must either display a specific route restriction or Train Company (a defined term in the NRCoT, backed up by a list in Appendix A on page 32). Otherwise it isn’t effectually restricted at all.

      “Thameslink only” is not a geographic route restriction like “not via London”. So if it is to be an effectual restriction at all, it can only possibly be referring to the Train Company of Govia Thameslink Railway Limited, the only Train Company in Appendix A which contains “Thameslink” in its legal or trading name.


    3. As to Southern being a separate company, that is no longer the case. As per their latest company accounts (https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/06574965/filing-history/MzI1OTkzODQ0N2FkaXF6a2N4/document?format=pdf&download=0), Southern Railway Limited ceased operating services on 26 July 2015, when their operations joined the TSGN mega-“franchise” operated by Govia Thameslink Railway Limited. There’s no need to peruse the 800-page management contract agreement to find that out!


  12. To summarise, by using a “Thameslink only” ticket on a Southern-branded service, you are breaking the spirit but not the letter of the DfT / RDG / GTR’s restrictions; but when GTR charges you a penalty fare or attempts to prosecute you, they are breaking the law.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Surely the obvious workaround to this is for GTR to amend the Point-to-Point tickets to “Not Valid via Clapham Junction or Brixton” so by implication one can only use London Bridge or Elephant & Castle services. It essentially becomes the same as a “Thameslink only” ticket by the loss of travel to Victoria. Of course that doesn’t work for Travelcards, but it’s something. Maybe for Travelcards it’s a case of “only valid on trains via Redhill” as the fast trains use the Quarry tunnel?


  14. If anyone has been charged a supplement, excess, or penalty fare by GTR under similar circumstances please do reply to this as I would be extremely interested in hearing from anyone else who this has happened to.

    GTR are not allowed to do this; the legislation does not allow for it, and any evidence of wrongdoing by GTR would be gratefully received.

    More information is available here:



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