So you lost your ticket, eh?

Emma Cook

Spot fines on the Underground have made the public think of inspectors as monsters. wonders why . He looks shifty enough. In his late thirties with short dark hair and a black bomber jacket. He nervously taps his foot and looks around the Tube carriage. On any other day he might have got away with it, but today he's been spotted.

Paul, 35, and Ian, 42, (not their real names) are London Underground revenue control inspectors working the District Line. And they've found their first culprit. Dressed in blue and yellow striped hats and navy uniform, they have been walkingdown the aisles of carriages for the past hour. Travellers stare at them mutely, holding up tickets for perfunctory inspection. A group of teenagers giggles. "Nice hat," shouts one. Paul smiles and carries on walking. Then he spots the shifty-looking man and asks him for his ticket. He produces a crumpled weekly travelcard two days out of date.

We step out of the train at the next stop. Paul fires questions at him while Ian writes notes in a small black book. "What's your name? Where did you get on? Where do you live?" The transformation from benign ticket inspectors to tough policemen is swift. "We advise that what you say now could be used as evidence against you. Is that really where you live because we can check if what you say is true or not? Where did you really get this ticket from?"

"What is this, a bloody bank robbery?" the man responds. He then explains that his wife lent the ticket to him this morning and didn't realise the date had expired. "I've told you where I live, and you can check it if you like," he says sarcastically.

More details are recorded before their suspect suddenly takes flight towards the exit. Ian and Paul chase him as far as the ticket barriers. He bounds over them and runs out of the station. "He's probably a persistent fare evader," says Ian, slightly out of breath. "I should think he'll get prosecuted for this one."

Chases such as this are rarer now that London Underground (LU) issues spot fines of pounds 10 and fewer passengers try to travel for free. Since the policy was introduced last April, 100,000 penalty fares have been given out, and in the first week alone inspectors took pounds l.8m for excess fares.

LU spokesman Donal McCabe is keen that passengers should take the measure seriously. "We've taken fare evaders to court," he says. "We've also sent bailiffs to people's houses. It's to show that we don't want this to be seen as an idle threat."

With an pounds 8m increase in ticket sales in the last financial year, much of which is attributed to spot fines, this is clearly not so. But such an active threat has made passengers resentful - often towards staff. Paul has been sworn at, kicked and thrown down a flight of stairs.

Recently, his mate was pinned against a wall and ended up in hospital. "I don't enjoy my job. There's just too much stress," he says darkly. "I'd rather work in an office." Ian is also nervous of the risks: "I always wonder if I'll get back in one piece," he says. "I never tell my wife the whole story."

More criticism towards the fines has come from the London Regional Passengers Committee (LRPC), which has already aired its concerns to Steven Norris, the local transport minister. To date, there have been 26,500 appeals by passengers against the imposition of penalty fares and 700 people have taken their complaints to the LRPC.

Rufus Barnes, secretary for the committee, believes the policy is too harsh. "We're concerned about people who forget their ticket or lose it," he says. "Under the Penalty Fares Act, LU no longer has to prove your intent. It's just a question of fact that you're guilty."

When Robert McEwen, a commuter, was travelling to Clapham Common last summer, inspectors stopped him for under-paying his fare by 30p. "I was made to feel like a criminal," he says. "It was a genuine mistake, but they assumed I was in the wrong. I was ordered off the train and told to pay pounds 10 immediately. They were rude and heavy-handed. I found their treatment humiliating."

Inspectors are told to use their discretion. In my presence, Paul and Ian are reasonable and polite with all the passengers. On one carriage, they approach an elderly woman, sitting amid a pile of shopping bags, who has underpaid. She shows her ticket, flushes red and apologises profusely while the rest of the carriage pretend to ignore her embarrassment. Paul smiles kindly and doesn't fine her. Instead, he patiently explains the fare prices to her.

In many cases, Paul follows his instincts. "You can get to know their nature even before you approach them," he says. "Something inside will say, 'OK, let this one go.' '' He says there are now fewer out there to catch, and fare evasion has decreased by about 50 per cent. London Buses has been impressed with these results and followed suit early this month, charging fare evaders on-the-spot fines of pounds 5.

No doubt ticket sale revenues will shoot up along with the number of passenger complaints. Caught in the middle are the inspectors who take the brunt of the blame. As Paul says: "Everybody's got some grievance and they take it out on you. It's not nice giving someone a criminal record for what many may see as something rather petty. But you've got to do it, even though I'd just rather not."

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