Sunday, 14 June 2009

Fare's Fair?

It's nearly half past nine on Friday morning and I've just arrived on foot at Wolverhampton station, and need to get a train to Shrewsbury. There is one due to leave in two minutes. In fact it's already on the platform. There are at least a dozen people in the queue for the ticket counters, but no-one using either of the automatic ticket machines.

I approach one of these, plough through the options screens, put my debit card in, and then read the message on the screen telling me that there is a 'card error' and that I need to remove my card and then put it back in again. I do this and receive the same message again. Undaunted I pull a second card out of my wallet and put that in instead. Unable to blame the card anymore, the machine simply declares that it is unable to process my transaction at the moment, and that is that.

The queue to reach a human being has not grown any shorter. The ticket counters are behind a partition. There are about five in total, although the most I can ever remember seeing open at any one time is two.

There are no ticket barriers to reach the platforms, so I hurry through to the train. I still have nearly a minute to spare and there are a couple of staff hanging around on the platform so I ask them if I can buy a ticket on board. They tell me I can't, but that it should be ok to pay at the barrier in Shrewsbury.

I get on board, and then begin ruminating on what might happen at Shrewsbury. Maybe the staff there won't believe me, and will try to fine me. Or maybe the barriers will be unmanned and open, and I will walk out of the station and into the morning sunlight seven pounds and twenty pence better off than I was expecting to be.

But both off these outcomes are pre-empted by an inspector getting on board at Billbrook. He doesn't ask why I don't have a ticket, but then tries to charge me nine pounds for one.

'Is that the cheapest price? I tried to buy one from the machine at the station but it wouldn't take my card. It was only supposed to be about seven quid.'

In a flat, heard-it-all-before tone of voice he tells me that this is the price on the train, and that there are also staff at Wolverhampton station. I tell him about the queue, even lengthening it for good measure - 'they were queuing out of the door.'

He mutters that they need to get their act together, but that it is nothing to do with him. I pay the nine pounds and he gives me the ticket and then moves on down the carriage.

I begin idly drafting a complaint and get as far as - 'why should I be penalised because the station I arrived at did not have adequate facilities for me to buy a ticket?'

But it seems like too much trouble for a couple of quid, and maybe my case isn't that strong anyway. I only tried one of the machines, and for all I know every single one of the ticket counters may have been open - after all, there's a first time for everything.

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