Leading Article: Ticket to ride should come with more rights

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The Independent Online
IN ALL respects except one, the penalty fares introduced yesterday on the London Underground are a good thing. It is not merely unfair but tiresome for the honest majority to subsidise the selfish minority who avoid paying their fares. If, as London Underground's management expects, the new pounds 10 penalty fares cut the rate of cheating and raise millions of pounds in extra revenue, so much the better.

The most obvious flaws in a penalty fare system have already been dealt with, since the Underground has been able to learn from other railways' mistakes. The pairs of inspectors enforcing the new system will accept payment of the pounds 10 by cheque, credit card or traveller's cheque, so few passengers will be able to wheedle their way out by claiming that they do not have enough money with them.

The inspectors will be able to call for help from the transport police when fare-dodgers turn nasty. Computer links will allow them to check names, addresses and credit card validities, and to confirm a claim that the ticket office was closed when the passenger entered the station. Yet passengers who believe they have been wrongly charged will still have the right to refuse to pay the penalty on the spot, and to argue the matter later either in correspondence or in court.

What happens, however, to passengers who arrive at a station in a hurry to find the ticket office open - but a queue of 20 people already waiting and all the automatic machines out of change? Tough luck, says London Underground; they must allow extra time and wait their turn in the queue.

In many private businesses, such a policy can be justified. No one would expect to be allowed to take his or her groceries home from Sainsbury's without paying just because the checkout queues were too long. But that is because Sainsbury's is not a monopoly. The Underground, by contrast, has no equivalent of Tesco or Asda around the corner keeping it on its toes.

The new obligations on its customers should therefore be balanced by new rights. If passengers must buy tickets before they travel, then London Underground must be ready to sell those tickets promptly and courteously. It should undertake that no passengers should have to queue for more than 10 minutes to buy a ticket, and those who wait longer should have the right to travel free.