Over the weekend I traveled to Exeter and back by train. On Sunday night I stopped off in Darkest Somerset to see my mother, resuming my journey today. This is something I have done many times before without trouble. Today, however, when my ticket was inspected on my way to Bristol, the conductor’s face took on the smarmy air of someone who had found an excuse to torment a helpless victim and extort money. According to him, because I had broken my journey overnight, the rest of my ticket was forfeit and I’d have to buy a new one.
Note that I said this is something I have done before, on a variety of journeys. Not once have I been told that breaking my journey overnight is not allowed. No one has ever said they are letting me off this time, but please buy the correct ticket next time. What’s more, I had described my journey plans in detail when I bought the ticket. The guy who sold it to me needed to make sure that I was eligible for an off-peak ticket, and wanted to check that I would not be resuming my travel today before 9:30am. I was impressed with how helpful he had been.
None of this impressed my conductor today. As far as he was concerned, I was traveling illegally on an invalid ticket. Things became much clearer when he was joined by a colleague with a badge saying “Revenue Protection Officer”. Obviously some sort of passenger bullying operation was going on. That extended not just to looking for people traveling without tickets, but to finding any excuse possible to demand more money. (And enjoying throwing their weight around in doing it.)
Not wishing to have to explain myself to the police at Bristol, I paid using my Amex card. I phoned them when I got home, and they said they’d be happy to help me dispute the charge. That, however, doesn’t worry me too much. I’m far more concerned about what this means for traveling on FGW services.
I put up with a lot from FGW. There are the persistent late running trains and cancellations. There’s the massive overcrowding, especially at weekends. There’s the ongoing issue of people blocking seats with their bags, or by sitting in the aisle, which train crews generally won’t do anything about. And of course the annual above-inflation fare rises. I put up with all of this because I believe in trains and like to ride them when I can. Today’s incident has changed all that, at least as far as FGW is concerned.
To start with, it is clear evidence that FGW will not honour a ticket sold to a passenger on the advice of their own staff. That has to be worrying, especially given how complex the fare system has become. So from now on I’ll have no confidence in my ability to buy a ticket for a journey that involves a change of trains, or a break of journey, in case having my ticket stamped by another conductor is again taken as evidence of fraud on my part. Nor will I buy cheap advance tickets as I can’t trust advice given as to which services I can use them on.
Furthermore, my local station is often unstaffed, and there are no ticket machines. In the past I have bought a ticket on the train, or on arrival. Now I have no confidence that some zealous conductor won’t accuse me of failing to buy a ticket before boarding and charge me a penalty fare, so I won’t travel unless I can buy a ticket first.
Finally I won’t encourage other people to travel on FGW trains. A lot of my author friends are coming over here for the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. I’d been suggesting that some of them might do some touristing around here. But foreign visitors who don’t know the system are easy prey for train conductors looking to extort money, so I’m not going to recommend that anyone travel on FGW lines.
Of course I’m a bit stuck for alternatives, so I may have to use the trains a bit in the near future. Fortunately I can get to London on South West Trains services (cheaper too, but much less frequent). But I am now looking to buy a car, which makes me very sad.
Well done, FGW. Your “revenue protection” scheme has netted you £18.10 in extra fares. It has also cost you a loyal customer, and thousands of pounds in future revenues. Was that what you had in mind when you came up with the idea?