Tuesday 12th May 2020
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my local station, Hassocks in Sussex, up to London to seek out hydrogen fuelled buses on TfL route 444 before they were withdrawn from service.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.
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.
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”.
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.