Northern Rail has bowed to pressure and abandoned its controversial practice of handing passengers “telling off” notices when they queue to buy tickets after getting off their trains.
But the operator, which was accused of “bullying” vulnerable passengers after a girl of 16 was pulled out of a queue by ticket inspectors, has said it will instead impose “penalty fares” of at least £20 on travellers who do not buy their tickets in advance.
Its change of direction followed a barrage of criticism and a “heated” meeting at Westminster.
But an MP warned tonight that its new policy could be a move “from frying pan to fire”.
The company’s “stakeholder manager”, Pete Myers, confirmed in a letter to Conservative MP Philip Davies, seen by The Yorkshire Post, that would end its “failure to purchase” scheme before Christmas. The policy saw passengers who were unable to buy a ticket before they boarded denied one at their destination and instead handed a notice demanding payment within 21 days.
Mr Myers, who acknowledged that Northern’s policy had involved “pulling customers from the queue at Leeds Station”, told Mr Davies: “I would not be telling the truth if I said that we hadn’t had complaints.”
He said the system had been devised “with the customer in mind”, but added: “It is not what we do but how we do it and I know that here we have erred.”
But Northern will now fine passengers who do not buy a ticket before they board. Conductors will continue to sell tickets during journeys but these will now carry a warning about the railway byelaw that forbids “entering a train for the purpose of travel without a valid ticket”.
The company confirmed tonight: “We are launching a trial system so that people who travel without having purchased a ticket will be expected to pay a penalty fare.”
Mr Myers admitted to Mr Davies: “I know this sounds Draconian in the extreme but it really isn’t.”
He said: “It sounds like we are replacing an unpopular system with something more punitive”, but said the new regime would be “highly regulated”, with a “transparent appeals system”.
Passengers will be fined double the cost of their single fare or £20, whichever is greater.
Mr Davies, who described his meeting with the company as “heated”, said: “I’m not sure if I really got any satisfaction out of them.
“What they were doing was disgraceful. They were making people feel like criminals when they were queuing up to pay.
“We will have to see if this change of policy isn’t moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. I have made it very clear to them that I will be watching them carefully and if I hear of any examples of them penalising anyone who is trying to pay then I will be taking the case to the Secretary of State.”
Mr Davies lobbied the company after a constituent in Menston, near Ilkley, complained that his 16-year-old daughter had bundled out of Leeds Station by staff.
A Northern spokesman said: “Many customers already buy before they board, but a small minority choose not to do so. In order to reduce that number we are launching a trial system so that people who travel without having purchased a ticket will be expected to pay a penalty fare.”