/ Travel & Leisure

Travelling without a train ticket – why are the rules so complex?

Grumpy train guard

Do you have to buy a ticket before you get on a train? Can you buy tickets on trains or from the ‘excess fares’ window at your destination? It may not surprise you to hear that there’s no simple answer to these questions…

It seems to me we’re stuck between two eras in terms of train tickets.

The days of being able to hop on a train and buy a ticket onboard from an Ealing comedy-era guard are certainly long gone. Often the guard isn’t there anymore, and the prices of tickets you can buy, at least for long journeys, are exorbitantly expensive.

Yet the days where we can all just beep in and out of an integrated transport system with our smartcard are some way off, if they ever arrive.

What exactly are the rules?

One of my colleagues recently overheard an irate passenger at a train station the other day. The passenger was cheesed off. She admitted that she’d got on the train without buying a ticket, because queuing to buy the ticket would have made her miss her train.

But she had tried to find a ticket inspector onboard (there wasn’t one) and then presented herself at the ‘excess fares’ window at her destination. Said passenger was not amused to pay a penalty fare on top of buying a full fare ticket.

This prompted us to look into exactly what the rules are about having a ticket before getting on a train. And what happens if you don’t have one?

Ask a simple question, get a complicated answer. The National Rail Conditions of Carriage is the rulebook, but it’s a spirit-sapping 27 pages long – and only gives part of the story.

Too many caveats?

The key responsibility of passengers is to have a valid ticket before getting onboard. But this isn’t true for the open access companies – Grand Central and First Hull Trains.

There are supposed to be notices telling you where you can get on the train without a ticket – does that ring true to you?

That aside, you must get a ticket no matter how long the queue at the ticket office is, according to the conditions in the rulebook. And yet watchdog Passenger Focus contradicts this by advising that if it’s more than five minutes’ wait at peak times and three minutes’ off-peak you can try hopping on board without a ticket – but get staff permission first.

If there isn’t a ticket machine or office or – more likely – the ticket machine is broken, then you can get on without a ticket. In all these circumstances you’re only supposed to pay the fare you would have paid if you’d bought the ticket just before getting on the train.

If it’s a Penalty Fare area then you need to have bought a Permit to Travel from a machine, unless it’s broken of course. Whether ticket machines are broken is supposedly verifiable by train staff, at least in Penalty Fare areas.

Obviously fare revenue is partly what pays for the train network, but does all this seem fair to you? Does any of it surprise you? Or perhaps you’re as confused as me and just hope for a clearer system…

Have you ever been caught for travelling without a train ticket?

No - I always buy a ticket (85%, 448 Votes)

Yes - but I had intended to buy a ticket (7%, 37 Votes)

No - I've been lucky (5%, 26 Votes)

Yes - I was caught fair and square (3%, 18 Votes)

Total Voters: 529

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The situation is really confusing where my parents live as there are a lot of rural stations which aren’t manned even on week days outside of peak times, so there is almost always a ticket inspector on the train who will sell normal price tickets to everyone with no questions asked.

However, one weekend I got unlucky coming back to London and got on the train from one of the busier local stations without buying a ticket (all the machines were broken so the queue at the office was very long). I assumed there’d be a ticket inspector as normal but there wasn’t, and when I tried to pay at the excess fares window I had to pay a penalty charge. The person charging me even said that I’d got unlucky as they just happened to be low on staff that day! I don’t see how this is consistent at all, especially as by lying and saying I’d got on at an unmanned station they presumably would have just let me buy the ticket?

When the railways were privatised there was much reassurance about the protection of “network benefits”. A consistent and equitable fares and tickets system was ceratinly one of the universal benefits of British Rail. So what has happened to the “network benefits”? The penalty excess fare system is grossly unfair. Doesn’t the unfair contract terms law give some relief? Or are the railways exempt from that? I have yet to find a copy of the “Conditions of Carriage” on the train or at the ticket office. And how are you supposed to now you will be surcharged if you get on at an intermediate station without a valid ticket? At least they announce this impositon before trains leave terminal stations but nary a word on this is spoken once the journey has commenced.

I’ve just seen a report on our regional BBC News programme about the trial; of smartcard technology for train tickets at Brighton and Lewes stations. Similar concept to the Oyster card in London. Apparently it’s intended that paper tickets for rail travel will disappear by the end of 2014.
Now if they could just simplify the fare structures! As well as peak and off-peak there seems to be super off-peak and various other ranges. And it’s more complicated fort someone like me who’s entitled to a Disabled Person’s Railcard who finds a ticket/fare available for certain times according to the rail company’s website, but are then told by staff a the booking office that it’s not available!
Why don’t they display the time periods for the different peak/off-peak/etc categories pronimemtl;y in stations?

I hate to sound like a broken record, but there is no ambiguity in Holland or Germany.

If you are too late so that buying a ticket is not possible, that is your fault for not leaving early enough.
Schwarz-fahren is looked down on in Europe and for all the millions of times you aren’t checked, the one time that you don’t buy a ticket, you will be caught, like me!

Always in this country looking for someone else to blame and take up the slack.

I agree that you should not leaver it too late to buy your ticket, but how much time should you allow? It seems there’s always a queue at the booking office – probably made wose by the number of questions people have to answer in order to find our which ticket/fare combination applies to the journey they want to make because the fare structure is too complex.
Naturally there at most only 2 of the 3 ticket positions open for use.
I know automated ticket machines are takung over, but do these make it any easier to work out if you’re choosing the right ticket/fare?
I also note there was a recent report of ticket machines at Basingstoke station overcharging travvellers for about a week until it was sorted out, so even these new systems don’t seem to make things better. Was it a case that the fares structure is to difficult to understand for the person who unputs the data to the system?

I just got myself an Oyster card and not knowing how to use it properly at a main line train station had to rush to catch the train at the platform, when I arrived at Charing x I asked at the ticket counter, they said where had you travelled from, checked my card that I hadn’t used it before and just charged me the fare from the station I travelled from, but if my ticket had shown otherwise then I could of had a fine.

Internet John says:
7 December 2011

You must buy a ticket but that in no way guarantees you a seat. And everyday the staff see the two carriage train shunt along into the station when they need four carriages.

Now to all the people that are standing in the doorway so that no-one else can get on at the stations –
Don’t forget to moo when you go past the stations the train doesn’t stop at.

Harry says:
24 March 2012

I go to the train station everyday. I wait there with my friend until his trian comes and then I get to the bus stop to get at bus. My frins says that sometimes transoprt poice come to the station and check peoples tikest before they’ve evena got on the train. If they don’t have a tikcket they get arrested. So, can you actually go onto the platform without a ticket?

Martyn says:
14 November 2012

I recently went to get on a train where they have a ticket machine. I put a £10.00 which it promptly took without issuing a ticket. I then had to purchase another ticket and report the loss of £10.00, which they told me they would look into, I’ve heard nothing since. Last night at the same train station I boarded the train as I have done since walked straight up to the ticket inspector asked him for a ticket before the train moved explained to him why I hadn’t used the machine. He then promptly charged me for a ticket as the train moved forward and issued a £20.00 fine, even though I hadn’t travelled anywhere without a ticket. 15 people got on the train and they fined myself and a young girl. They never left the carriage to check anybody else!! Every other train they let pay the ticket end of not these over weight jobs worth’s!

Have you ever heard of the idea of refusing to be bullied, taking their names.. and taking it up with head office (and the press).. including the initial £10? Someone has to show moral strength, or how will our children know how to resist such stupidity.

Why anybody don’t crops the railway platform without a platform ticket
For a student it is necessary to save time
And only for cross the railway platform it is not necessary to buy a 10rs tickt
Is it fair when a student goto their class through railway platform and a sivildresser man asked him for ticket and when the student tell that i m going yo my class that is in west side and i m coming from east than the sivildresser ask him to R’s 500 or give warning to arrested by police
Plus comment

This deliberately contrived confusion, and lack of guards or ticket sales offices at isolated, rural stations, is part of the reason why I avoid train travel. Other than that, train travel in this country, is expensive, unfairly and confusingly priced and incovenient.

jasmine says:
30 November 2017

i got given a train fine. but I couldn’t buy a ticket the machine was broken and the ticket office was closed in sheerness on sea yesterday. I had money to pay my ticket when I got to Sittingbourne. I explained this and they still fined me. i don’t find that fare as i didn’t actually break the law i showed them the money to!

Heather Stretton says:
7 May 2018

If you get a penalty fare that you don’t think you deserved, you can query it. Ask the person who gives you the penalty fare how you can complain against it – they might give you a form, or tell you the website to use. The man who gave me the penalty fare was very apologetic about it, and said he didn’t think I deserved one, but technically by the rules he had to give me one. So I paid it, and then complained against it, and the train company refunded my money. It is worth a try.

Brian Dean says:
3 August 2020

I joined a train at Brighouse the ticket machine didnt issue a ticket the gaurd could not sell me one so he said pay your fare at Hebden Bridge ok when i arrived i had to pay £20 00 penalty i offered to pay the fare they would not take it’ ill stick to road transport from now on, shoot in the foot comes to mind