Computerised crackdown on Underground

LONDON Underground is about to unleash a hi-tech blitz that will leave fare dodgers with no place to hide. From next Sunday anyone caught underpaying or travelling on the Tube without a ticket will be asked to pay a pounds 10 fine on the spot, writes Nuala Moran.

London Underground, which says free-loaders are costing it pounds 30m a year, is backing up its Penalty Fares scheme with a pounds 1.1m computer system that will process payments and allow inspectors to verify instantly the name and address of anyone without identification, and check the validity of credit cards.

Inspectors on the District Line will try out hand-held terminals to download information about fines to a personal computer at Acton Underground station. But the system, installed by ICL, will also handle an expected 18,000 hand- written penalty notices each week, issued by London Underground staff filling in the traditional paper forms. The Underground has 300 inspectors but all staff will be empowered to issue penalty notices.

A passenger asked for a pounds 10 fare may pay on the spot by any method, even traveller's cheques. Inspectors will be equipped with mobile phones to check cards via a link between the central computer and the Barclays PDQ credit-card verification service.

Anyone who wants to pay later, or who disputes the penalty, will have to provide proof of name and address, so that the bill can be posted or the claim investigated. The system is linked to the Equifax credit reference database, which carries all names and addresses on the electoral roll. Inspectors will use their mobile phones to access this service and check the bona fides of anyone without identification.

London Underground is making it hard to lie and get away with it. Passengers who protest that it was impossible to buy a ticket because the ticket office was closed or the ticket machines were not working will have their stories checked against another database, on the Underground Ticketing System (UTS). The Penalty Fares system has a communications link to UTS, which has a record of the status of all the ticket offices and machines on London Underground's 256 stations, to check all claims of extenuating circumstances.

Excess fare windows, which have allowed passengers to pay the difference between the fare paid and the fare due at their destination are to close. 'From 3 April the law is that the correct fare is pounds 10 unless you get a ticket before you travel,' said a spokesman.

Each penalty notice has three parts, one kept by the inspector for London Underground's records and for reconciliation, and two for the passenger, one in lieu of a ticket and the other to send back with the pounds 10 remittance.

The inspectors' copies will be sent each day to the Penalty Fares office, where they will be scanned into the central computer to capture the data. If the fee is not paid within 21 days this computer will automatically issue a reminder. If payment is still not forthcoming, London Underground will decide whether or not to prosecute. The computer will also monitor repeat offences.

The trial of the hand-held terminals, with both keyboards and touch-screens, will start with 10 inspectors based at Acton and will be extended to Ladbroke Grove station after three or four months. If London Underground decides to go ahead, it will install 30 personal computers in Tube stations, linked to the central computer for downloading data.

London Underground expects to take pounds 1m per year in penalty fares but it says the object of the system is not to generate revenue but to act as a deterrent to fare dodgers. 'In an ideal world, we won't issue any penalty fares notices, because the system will deter non- payment,' the spokesman said.

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