/ Money, Travel & Leisure

Are train penalty fares a fair penalty?

Ever been fined for not having the right train ticket? A recent report from Passenger Focus highlights how easy it can be to make a mistake, and slams the ‘minefield’ of rules which can cause stress and confusion.

This weekend I was travelling on the London Overground when the ticket inspectors came on.

One lady immediately panicked, as she couldn’t find the ticket she’d bought for the journey.

She pleaded with inspectors not to give her a fine, and produced the receipt showing she’d bought a ticket from a machine just five minutes ago.

Luckily for her, the inspectors were in a good mood and simply told her to be more careful. ‘Don’t worry – I believe you’ assured the friendly attendant, before moving on to check other tickets. But sometimes people aren’t so lucky.

All change please

Another time I had failed to buy a ticket, as there was a huge queue at the station booth and the one and only ticket machine was broken. I was running late for work so I hopped on a train to Liverpool Street, knowing that I’d be able to buy a ticket from the guards when I got there as I (and many of my fellow commuters) had done before.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realise was that selling these tickets are ‘at the guard’s discretion’ – at least that was what the day’s less than helpful guard told me. He informed me that his colleagues shouldn’t have let me (or other commuters) buy tickets further down the line, and hit me with a £20 fine. I was not best pleased.

Passenger Focus has said that passengers are facing a ‘minefield of rules and regulations’ – I’m inclined to agree. I get as annoyed with fare-dodgers as anyone else, but I think the train system is now so complex that it’s catching honest people who just don’t know the rules.

All aboard the Confusion Express

If the ticket machine’s broken, can you still board? I know some stations have ‘permit to travel’ machines, but when should you buy one? Is it possible to buy a ticket from the on-board guard, or not? Or if (in my Liverpool Street example) the machine’s broken and there’s no on-board guard, then should we just resign ourselves to long queues?

Passenger Focus found lots of different examples of people getting fined because they weren’t sure of the rules. One elderly couple was issued with a £239 unpaid fares notice, because they boarded an earlier train to the one they had tickets for. They didn’t realise that they’d get the penalty – one of them had fallen and was in pain, so they were keen to get home faster.

The main thing that bothers me about this is the question of reasonableness – where is the admission that fallible humans sometimes make mistakes?

I’ve often sat on the train listening to a foreign tourist, young student or elderly passenger pleading with a guard over a penalty fine. The main refrain? ‘I’m sorry – I just didn’t know.’ If train companies are going to insist on so many rules, the least they can do is make them clear enough that everyone can understand them.

What do you think about train ticket rules?

Both of the above (76%, 142 Votes)

They should be made much simpler (14%, 27 Votes)

They should be communicated much better (5%, 10 Votes)

I think they're already perfectly understandable (4%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 187

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Maybe just have a blanket fine like in the Netherlands.

I was caught once as I was late for the train and thought I could get one on the train (showing my ignorance), I then had to pay a 40euro fine plus the cost of the ticket.

They said, “no ticket, no excuse”

I think it’s unfair to rely on the goodwill of the conductor as his job is at stake. As the dutch conductor said, it’s your responsibility to get to the station on time, have enough money, and find a machine that works.

In lots of stations these days though there are ticket barriers making it very difficult to jump the train, although I have seen some people use a certain technique when following someone through…..


Good point, Dean, and I don’t think I’d ever say ‘conductors should be nicer’ – I think the companies should be more understanding about the complexity of their ticket rules and confusion caused by many. My issue with the Liverpool Street station conductor wasn’t that he wasn’t nice (he doesn’t really have to be, to be fair), my issue was that if there are no clear rules you end up in a situation where (like I did) you think it’s fine to get on without a ticket and buy it later, only to get nabbed when you encounter a conductor who interprets the rules differently.


I have not purchased a ticket, I have no contract with the transport companies, buying a ticket enters me into a contract with them which takes away some of my rights and legal protection.
There is no legislative vehicle I know of that forces me to purchase a ‘ticket’ from a private company.
If I enter a venue without a ticket, all they can do is eject me. If I enter a vehicle without a ticket, all they can do is eject me.
These are not fines, it is illegal to levy fines in this instance, thus the usage of the term penalty fare or charge.
To pay a ‘penalty fare / charge’ you have to enter into an agreement to do so, the phrase ‘once you enter the vehicle without a prepaid ticket you agree to pay a penalty fare’ is a fallacious statement.
Do you think if I post a notice on my front door saying, if you enter my house you agree to pay me £100 is valid?
If caught without a ticket, offer to leave, if you are restrained then a criminal offence has been committed against you.
The whole penalty charge / fare invention is aimed at [once again] circumventing your lawful rights by creating a vehicle that once you enter into removes your rights of challenge.
Now everyone, proceed to tell me just how wrong I am with this 🙁


I’m not sure if I understand your comment properly, but are you aware that penalty fares are based on law? The Railways (Penalty Fares) Regulations 1994 were made under section 130 of the Railways Act 1993, as amended by the Transport Act 2000.

By contrast, I don’t know of any law that authorizes you to enforce a £100 penalty charge to anyone entering your house if you put up such a notice as you stated.


What is purported to be ‘law’ is very often not and relies on you [unknowingly] entering a contract that makes you liable, I would urge you to examine this particular amendment. A private company cannot levy a fine, therefore the illegality has been circumvented by the usage of the term penalty fare or penalty charge.
The legal argument is; is the penalty charge / fare a fine. The results depend on the depth of your pocket and the knowledge / performance of your legal team.
If you want to see just how convoluted the system gets when the government twists legislation to fleece people have a look at this, it is about the congestion charge where people are being fined as well for simple errors.


Shevchenko-adeen says:
13 June 2016

No…you are obtaining services by deception. You are allowing the train company to provide a service but are deliberately avoiding to pay for it.

Shevchenko-adeen says:
13 June 2016

Not necessarily – by-laws may allow private firms to issue fines.


On a Thursday evening preceding a four-day bank holiday weekend, I attempted at my local Southeastern station to buy a season ticket to run from the following Tuesday. The ticket clerk entered the details of my requested ticket into her system, but it returned an error message because I was trying to buy the ticket one working day in advance, which was more than their systems appeared to allow. She told me that she could not sell me the ticket and that I should return the following day to buy the ticket. I replied that I could not return to the station (or to any other National Rail station) until the Tuesday morning in time for my scheduled train departure and it was for this reason that I needed to buy my ticket in advance. When I arrived as planned for my train on the Tuesday morning, there was an exceptionally long queue to buy tickets, which I had anticipated following a series of bank holidays, hence the need to buy my ticket in advance. Having acted in good faith by making reasonable efforts to buy a ticket well in advance of my planned travel time, I therefore boarded my intended train with the intention of buying the necessary season ticket upon my train’s scheduled arrival in central London. Fortunately when I arrived, a ticket inspector was understanding of the problem and after some persuasion let me through the barriers to buy the season ticket at the normal ticket office. It is a disgrace that whilst I can buy an airline ticket or a Eurostar train ticket up to a year in advance, Southeastern was incapable of selling me a ticket only one working day in advance. I’m not surprised so many people travel without the necessary tickets. Furthermore, Southeastern’s (and no doubt many other train companies’) failure to sell tickets sufficiently in advance is a primary cause of unnecessary queues at ticket offices at the beginning of each working week, particularly following bank holidays.


The imposition of a fine when having the “wrong” ticket should take into account whether anyone has been inconvenienced ( packed train) or the train company has really lost money.
With all the IT available it would seem perfectly feasible to record these incidents so as to catch the serial offenders.
However it seems to be a trend not to allow inspectors etc discretion or flexibility in these matters.


I remember a time, when I was young, when there were no penalty fares because virtually all tickets were inspected. Because of that, if you boarded without a ticket, you were reasonably believed when you said you were intending to buy on the train, because you couldn’t have got away with it. So you just bought the ticket from the guard at face value, or from the ticket inspector at your destination. There was no stress involved. Now, presumably due to cuts, they don’t have enough staff to inspect every ticket, so they assume that if you don’t have a ticket it’s because you were trying to defraud the company and they introduced the penalty as a deterrent.


Nikki – I found myself in a very similar situation once. I’d seen people on my train buy tickets to London every day and thought I could do the same, but instead, found myself landed with a £20 penalty fair when I tried to do it myself.

Another time, I thought I’d tapped in to my local station with my Oyster card but apparently, it hadn’t registered correctly. On arrival at Waterloo East I held out my ticket for inspection and I was flagged up. Despite my protestations, they refused to believe me and charged me a penalty fare of £20 for a journey that costs me £3. I thought my punishment was hugely disproportionate and they were incredibly rude to me. I also had to endure getting ‘told off’ in front of hundreds of other commuters.

In short, I think it IS easy to make mistakes on the train network, especially when regulations and machinery are involved. If we must be faced with penalty fines, at least make them more reasonable and make the rules absolutely clear.

Mike says:
22 May 2012

It doesn’t help that the machines and online ticket systems are a total nightmare to use. It’s almost as if they go out of their way to make buying the correct ticket as difficult as possible.

Last night I bought tickets via the southeastern website and collected at the station – the whole process was a long drawn out nightmare.

With the reduction of ticket staff and complicated alternatives surely this just increases the people getting tickets wrong. But I don’t really see much evidence that the companies are even aware that they are creating issues for people – even the supermarkets have people standing by the selfsevice machines to help – not yet seen that at our station.


Oxted station has ticket machines which are impossible to use in the afternoon if the sun is shining. Staff seem to be very understanding with barriers left open and inspectors ready to sell tickets at normal rates.


Do we know how much revenue has been collected by these companies in ‘penalty charges / fares’?

Ben Rosser says:
22 May 2012

Bought Tickets through Redspottedhankey. Northern Rail Guard on one leg of journey refused to accept tickets, had to pay for new tickets, £42. Rechecked on computer tickets OK and can still be purchased from Northern Rail site. Redspottedhankey just gave me the runaround. Northern Rail customer service reiterated tickets not valid (despite me giving them a print-out of the route) but gave me £40 voucher. I suspect the moto of all cutomer service depts is that “You can’t please all of the people, all of the time, SO WHY BOTHER”

Stevep2012 says:
22 May 2012

I traven on the train a lot with my two dogs. sometimes i get to the station a little late so do not have the time to buy a ticket at the station before get on the train. i always have the money to pay. With having to dogs,one quite large,i find it easier to take a seat and wait for conductor as it is safer than dragging two dogs up and down the train looking for a conductor.. On many occasions now i have been threated with a penelty fair because i have boarded train without paying,Even though it clearly states that you “MAY” be subject to a penelty fair,not that you will. One time,after refusing to accept a penelty fair i was asked to leave the train at the next station where i was met by transport police. After explaining the situation,and as they could see i had two dogs,they themselves said that i was being treated unfairly and ordered the train inspector to let me back on the train to the dismay of the inspector. I wasnt trying to fair dodge,as the police themselve admitted,it was safer for me to be seated


Note the word MAY, this is crucial to the penalty process.They cannot say will as that in an invalid statement. The MAY is if you agree to pay the penalty charge, you can refuse just as Steve has done, it is how you refuse that determines whether you have unknowingly entered the process that takes away your rights of challenge through the courts.

I asked Which earlier in this thread if they could supply data on the revenue raised by these penalty charges / fares. I suspect that year on year this figure may increase as is seems that the transportation companies are creating situations that trap people into making simple errors which they are then fined for. Such as when the congestion charge was introduced to London we were told that the system was unaffordable without the revenue from fines.
Is it possible that this is a way to make up for shortfalls in funding & passenger revenue.


Hi m. Sorry it’s taken a while to answer your question – we’ve been doing a bit of digging. I’m afraid the answer is we don’t (and can’t) really know for sure – I spoke to someone at Passenger Focus who said that they’d like to have info like this too! Their latest campaign for fairer treatment on penalty fares (you can read more here http://www.passengerfocus.org.uk/news-and-publications/document-search/document.asp?dsid=5549) is aimed at getting train companies to be more transparent about penalties and how they are issues (as well as publishing much clearer rules about how and when people might be asked to pay a penalty fare. Passenger Focus is calling for companies to tell us how many penalties are issued, what they’re being issued for, and how many appeals are upheld or overturned.

I know this doesn’t give you the stats, but hope it sheds a bit of light on this. I would love to see more transparency around this, especially if it comes alongside clearer guidance for all passengers.


This is exactly what I expected, when figures are ‘unavailable’ especially to an organisation with Whichs experience at winkling these things out, there is usually a reason behind the obscurity.
Of course this data is logged and monitored, it has to be. If it is not being given out, then it is because the train companies know what a furore this will cause when released.
I suspect that I am right and when this comes to light we will all be shocked at exactly how much revenue the train companies are receiving from these questionable ‘fines’.

Ross says:
23 May 2012

I think there’s an incredible amount that’s not particularly fair or good about our national train services. As an honest commuter I live in constant fear that I’ll be penalised for not having one of my ‘i’s dotted or ‘t’s crossed. I travel around the country, to various different places, usually by rail, and there are stark differences between different policies. Quite often I’ll board a train without a ticket, because the station I’m leaving from does not have either a machine or a ticket office! It’s then up to me to find the conductor, explain this and buy the relevant ticket. If I wait until he gets to me, I’ll be given a so-called ‘penalty fare’. I think this is pretty ridiculous, and in this day and age one should never be in the position that they cannot pay for their ticket immediately and in advance, given the technology available.

The Oyster system in London is great (aside from a few flaws, like being incredibly easy to think you’ve bleeped your card when you might not have, and that in some of the remote stations, the machines aren’t attached to barriers or easy to find). I think this system could enhance the national rail ticketing system no-end, and make everyone’s life easier.

On top of that, why can’t we have an account, which we access via a smartphone, lets say, which allows us to buy tickets at any time, which are not in paper format, but appear as a QR code on the phone itself?

I think the answer as to why we don’t have anything like this is because the train companies make more out of penalising the honest folk, and it means that they don’t have to invest in their ticketing infrastructure more than they already do.


I really like the idea of QR codes or some way of purchasing tickets to have on your phone. I know that there are plans and ideas for ‘smart’ cards for train networks outside London (so essentially everyone would have an Oyster card). I think in an ideal world I’d like to have one of these cards and be able to top up credit or buy specific tickets for it online wherever I am. That would cut out the need for queuing or using machines, and mean you could always purchase a ticket. Of course there’s still a real need to have alternative methods (not everyone’s got a smart phone or internet access after all) but I think it would go a long way to making things easier for a lot of people.


Regarding the point from Nikki’s article “…I had failed to buy a ticket, as there was a huge queue at the station booth and the one and only ticket machine was broken. I was running late for work so I hopped on a train to Liverpool Street…” I think the following points are noteworthy:

1. YOU were late for work. That’s not the train company’s fault, and it’s not a good reason to fail to buy a ticket.

2. Queues and out of order ticket machines are not unusual, and if you had not been late, (see 1 above), this would have been irrelevant.

3. I regularly travel on services to Liverpool St which is on the Greater Anglia franchise. There are numerous posters on every station in that franchise which tell you clearly and unambiguously that if you board a train without a valid ticket you are liable to a penalty fare. I fail to see how that could be clearer. Incidentally, these posters are not hidden away, they are usually at the ticket barriers, and often on noticeboards placed in full line of sight of people entering the platforms via the ticket barrier.

In short Nikki, I have no sympathy with you at all in the scenario you describe.

As regards other instances mentioned, such as the elderly couple, you fail to mention that this couple could appeal any penalty fare, and in the circumstances described I would expect such an appeal would be granted. I have noted inspectors carefully explaining this point to people issued with penalty fare notices on every occasion on which I have seen penalty fare notices issued, (which I estimate to be around 40 times in the last 5 years).

I fully agree with the Dutch train guard mentioned by Dean “…it’s your responsibility to get to the station on time, have enough money, and find a machine that works.”


Hi S – you’re right of course, in that it’s not generally accepted practice, and it’s not something I would have thought of doing if I hadn’t seen other commuters, on an almost daily basis, buying tickets when they reached the end of their journey at Liverpool Street. In fact about a week or two before I got fined I had done exactly that and bought my ticket at Liverpool Street from a guard who was happy to sell me one.

The line itself is a bit notorious for having broken down machines or closed ticket offices, particularly at my station where for a long time they had to close the ticket office as they were improving it. I assumed that this was why they were OK with people buying when they left the train rather than before they get on, especially during rush hour when it’s extremely busy.

My issue isn’t really with the fact that I got fined for not having a ticket – if it was as clear as you describe then I’d put my hands up (or rather, I wouldn’t actually have boarded the train in the first place) but the fact is that it’s not. It was extremely common at the time for people to buy tickets at Liverpool Street station – there’s usually a crowd of guards standing at the platform exit for exactly this reason – and it was generally accepted that just as you could have bought a ticket from an on-train guard if there’d been one, you could instead get one from the guard at the station.

My main issue is with the fact that it *is* confusing, and that the rules are applied very differently depending on who you talk to and what mood they are in.

Regarding the “it’s your responsibility to get to the station on time, have enough money, find a machine that works” – I agree within reason. However I don’t think it is acceptable for a station to have only one available place to buy tickets, causing queues of 20 minutes or more at rush hour. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect commuters to add 20 minutes to their journey every day just because the train company isn’t properly resourced. Likewise the ‘machine that works’ only really applies if a station has ticket machines and at least one of them is working (oh, and takes cash, as some people won’t have credit cards, etc) which is not always the case.

Sorry, that’s quite a long post, but I think the key issue for me is the fact that the rules are not communicated properly and (I think more importantly) not enforced consistently across the board. If the rules were at least consistent then we’d know exactly what was and wasn’t OK.



I think you are being very hard on Nikki. I am all for big fines for people who try to get away without paying or frequently waste staff time, due to their own lack of planning, but most of us are human and occasionally make mistakes. Maybe a small supplementary payment might be in order, but no more since the ticket machine was faulty.

Let’s have a little tolerance, at least to start with.


One could very well say to the train companies:
it is your responsibility to make the trains run on time.
It is your responsibility to provide machines that work.
It is your responsibility to have a consistent ticket purchase policy, and not leave it at the ‘discretion of your employees’
It is your responsibility to provide enough ticket purchase points to prevent unreasonable queuing.
It is your responsibility to provide enough trains to alleviate the dangerous and unhealthy overcrowding on your trains.

When the train companies let us down, we are expected to bear it and ‘be understanding’ but when we [flawed human beings remember, not perfect automata] make simple errors, we are penalised.

Shevchenko-adeen says:
13 June 2016

Yes, we should be able to allocate a penalty against them when if arrives 10 minutes late, smells of wee, get crushed by 10 x the number of people that the carriage is designed to carry. It’s funny that animals have more legal space in carriage than people do on trains…

hannah says:
12 June 2012

I recently boarded the wrong train by mistake but when i realised the error i asked to leave the train at the next station and just pay for that part of the journey i was told i could not leave the train and board the correct train.i had to pay £123.00 for the entire journey i had already paid for.


Am I reading this correctly, you were prevented from leaving the train you had wrongly boarded?

hannah says:
12 June 2012

Yes once the conductor had made me aware of my mistake she told me i couldnt leave that train and that i had to pay the full fare. The conductor also took my ticket.


This seems illegal, what right did the conductor have for preventing you from leaving the train?
Once you explained your mistake and gave your details, by physically preventing you from leaving the train it seems that a crime has been committed, you have been detained against your will.
I may be mistaken [if so someone please correct me] but it seems that this incident needs to be reported to the police and you need to take legal action to get redress for this.

forhad says:
24 August 2012

in may 2012 i was travelling on the London Overground when the ticket inspector asked me to show my valid ticked i gave the ticket and the ticked was day travelling which is i bought £5.60 then he asked me to show photo id but i knw i have done mistake becauce i dont have young pereson rail card.
he asked me do u really have young person rail card i said no after that he asked to give my date of birh and address i gave him,after that he didnt give this ticket and gave me a permission letter to go to west croydon.i asked him do i need to pay any panelty he said no but this week i got a letter from london overground and they asked me just fill up this from and sign and dont send any money with this letter, plz can any one help me i dont understand why they send me this letter. and wht should i do now.