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The spirit of the law

On a Tuesday evening shortly before Christmas, I arrived at London Gatwick Airport on an Easyjet flight from Morocco. I wanted to travel to my home in Southwark as quickly as possible. The quickest and simplest way to do this is to catch a train from Gatwick Airport railway station in the terminal to East Croydon and then London Bridge, followed by another train to South Bermondsey, the nearest station to my home. A single ticket for this journey costs £14.60, a fare I find to be a bit steep. Knowing the fare system reasonably well, I instead purchased a ticket to East Croydon,  the first station inside Greater London at which the train stopped. For this,  I paid £4.50. I then used my Oyster Card – the contactless ticketing system that Londoners use for most of their public transport journeys within London –  to get to South Bermondsey. This was charged using the zone based fare system that applies within London, and cost me £2.20. I was thus able to reduce the cost of the journey by more than 50%.

This is not fare evasion. What I did is perfectly legal, and I can’t be punished for doing it, but surely it is against the spirit of the fare laws. The powers that be have decided that the wealthy plutocrats who can afford to fly Easyjet can also afford to pay £14.60 for a train journey from central London to the airport. By taking advantage of the cheaper fares available for shorter journeys, I am demonstrating my contempt for the wise decisions of these people. Let us call it fare avoidance. As it happened, a ticket inspector stopped me part of the way through the journey, and berated me for my lack of public spiritedness and civic responsibility, and just generally told me off for failing to spend money that rightly belonged to the families of good, honest people such as ticket inspectors. How would such people be able to feed their families if everyone behaved like this?

Actually, no he didn’t. What he actually said was “Thank you sir. That’s great”. It’s also possible he wished me a merry Christmas.

26 comments to The spirit of the law

  • Mr Ed

    The fare system on Great Britain’s public railways is absurd. In December I had 2 appointments on consecutive working days in Watford, Hertfordshire, one necessitating peak travel by train, the other off-peak. On the first, peak trip, it cost just under £120 return via London, with other options involving obscure Midlands branch lines too infrequent to be viable. On the off-peak trip, a direct ticket was still just under £120 but by buying an off-peak travelcard to L

    ndon and a ticket from the edge of the Travelcard Area (zone 6- basically the edge of Greater London) to Watford for a princely £4.50 my entire journey cost just over £55 and I had the benefit of unlimited travel within Greater London after 11 am to boot. Had I taken up the train companies website offerings, I would not have had the cheaper option, as it does not suggest splitting journies into discrete tickets.

    And a word of caution, a man who booked an Off Peak Advance ticket from London to Durham ona specific train (hence the low price) got off his train and an earlier station Darlington so that his wife had a shorter drive to pick him up. He thereby invalidated his ticket and had to pay the full fare from London to Darlington to be allowed to exit the station, and he had no ticket to get another train to Durham. The usual legal position that I would suggest is that the railway company should prove its loss before claiming a penalty. Injuria sine damno.

  • Rob

    Expect you had to change trains at East Croydon, or at least get off the train to swipe your Oyster card. Are there convenient readers so you can dash off and back onto the same train?

  • bloke in spain

    My sincere thanks for that, Mr Jennings. So my bank’s unrequested issue of a technically insecure contactless payment card, indeed that very Oyster, to a person with an address in Southern Spain (& four previous addresses ranging up to the Belgian border) & who hasn’t lived in London for six years, was not wasted.
    But bloody hell your trains are expensive. The two stops (6 miles) from Gatwick to my usual first UK port of call stings me over a fiver. The 25km train ride from home to the airport, at this end, is about £1,60.

  • Mr Ed

    surely it is against the spirit of the fare laws

    The right to travel on public transport (giving the lie that as it is ‘public’ it belongs to ‘us’) is conditional upon having a form of permit to travel, be that a ticket, or a rail warrant, e.g. like the Armed Forces issue. The National Rail Conditions of Carriage have some detailed terms in their 30 pages, Appendix B 12 prohibits the carriage of livestock or non-domestic animals, (I have never been tempted to take an elephant with me), and also there is an absolute bar on loaded firearms in Appendix B, but unloaded firearms may be carried (with an option for the operator to charge a fee) “Off Peak returns to Bath for me and my Mauser, please.” at the individual operator’s discretion (again, I have never felt the urge, as if I had a firearm anyway).

    But these ‘fare laws’ – they are contractual conditions issued by a statutory undertaker of sorts, National Rail – have no spirit in them Michael, rest peacefully, although I think Rob has a point that you may have breached condition 19 (b) absent a change of train or some swift sprinting up and down ramps at East Croydon.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Indeed, Mr Ed. There are merely laws or conditions that one must obey. Spirit is not the point. As is also the case with certain other laws that I might perhaps have been alluding to. (I think they may be more than contractual conditions though. There certainly can be criminal penalties if you disobey them, and I am dubious if anyone who has not bought a ticket is legally bound by any contractual conditions).

    I did in fact do what Rob suggested, which was get off the train, go up the ramps, go out the ticket gates with my ticket, go in again with my Oyster Card, and then get the next train to London Bridge, meaning that there was actually some inconvenience compared to buying a through ticket. They might have been more if I had been carrying a lot of luggage, but I wasn’t. There was not much delay, as the next fast train came along about five minutes after the one I got off. Depending on timings, one sometimes would need to change trains at East Croydon anyway. The inconvenience would have been smaller if there had been Oyster readers on the platform at East Croydon, but alas there weren’t. (There are such Oyster readers on platforms at many other stations where one might want to switch from a National Rail ticket to Oyster, so I don’t think this is due to any attempt to discourage what I was doing, especially – I think it is more that East Croydon is a complex station and they would have to be placed in lots of different places).

  • Mr Ed

    MIchael, your anti-social selfish capitalist running dog attitude would surely have earned you a death sentence in North Korea and in many a socialist’s fantasy a similar punishment here, but all that you have done is taken the choice of dishes on the ticket menu available and retained your own property at a small ‘shoe leather’ and opportunity cost.

    Of course, the allusion to tax avoidance is clear, and the Fascist railway system will have to get by without the £7.80 that remains yours, to be spent or saved as you wish, ‘unbreaking Bastiat’s window’.

  • Jake Haye

    … the Fascist railway system …

    In a fascist railway system the trains run on time, apparently 🙂

  • bob sykes

    As an American, I find this post and the comments completely unintelligible. What is going on here? I understand the business of finding a cheaper way to travel, but what is the problem here?

    You guys are living on another planet and speaking Martian.

  • Mr. Ed:

    Why not just get off the train without telling anybody?

  • Mr Ed

    Jake, I call it ‘Fascist’ as the running of the train services are contracted out by the State to companies that run trains on particular franchises, e.g. From London to Leeds and the North East of England and Scotland, but they hire the trains that they use from various train supply companies, charge ticket prices that are mostly regulated by the government, get money in some cases from the government to run the trains that they bid to provide, and they may or may not manage (but not own) the stations that they run trains to and from. And, if they share a route with another operator, they share the ticket revenue, not based on the tickets sold, but the capacity that they provide, so they might make money running an empty train 1 hour later than a train jammed like a sardine tin. This is called an ORCATS raid (see the thread 7 posts down).

    If they lose a franchise, the next franchise operator takes on all the staff, hires mostly the same trains (repainted in their logos) and it all starts again. Capitalism it is not.

    Bob: Martians probably wouldn’t have devised a railroad system like ours (see above), the spirit of the age here is to complain that people want to keep their own money, whether by tax avoidance or avoiding paying expensive train fares. Michael found a neat way to reduce travel costs. An Oyster card is a pre-payment card that allows you to travel on public transport in Greater London more cheaply (and in a traceable manner for the tin-hat fashionistas), but if Michael had not got off one train going to his destination at East Croydon and then gone through that station ticket barrier and straight back again, he would not have been able to travel without risking a fine for not validating his Oyster card, which is his second ticket home. He was not evading a fare, he was avoiding paying a higher fare, which is the sort of think our political class pretends to get excited about and start mini-2-minute hates about.

  • Paul Marks

    Good Michael.

    Yes Mr Ed – “Network rail” is actually 100% government owned.

    This is why I do not how to respond to people who demand the “renationalisation” of the railways, or attack the “private railways”.

    An honest reply would be “you are clearly utterly ignorant”.

    But that might be considered rude.

  • Mr Ed

    Ted, because if you are stopped, and you have not validated your second stage ticket, you would be liable to be fined for not having a valid ticket and you would need some form of valid ticket to pass through exit barriers at certain stations.

  • David A. Young

    Bob Sykes — Like you, I’m an American, and found most of this thread unintelligable, but I think it’s got something to do with Hogworts and wizards and such-what.

  • Laird

    Bob and David, I’m an American, too, and while the details are a bit fuzzy I was able to get the gist of this post without too much difficulty. But in any case, I enjoy these occasional uniquely British threads as a sort of puzzle to be worked out. I generally read the cricket posts the same way.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Pretty sure it is state owned and runs at a loss but my experience of the Berlin public transport was very positive.

    You pay by zone and there are only 3. For a fixed fee you go wherever you want within that zone. To travel from the airport (zone C) to the city centre (zone A) is about 20 miles and cost about £3. The trains are clean and punctual.

    Don’t know if a true free market solution could be found, but a fully integrated public transport network rocks from a users perspective. I don’t know what London’s excuse is when just about any first world capital city boasts a better network.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Bob & David, I suspect it’s like the menu in a Chinese restaurant: you can have one from column A and one from column B, and they’re discussing how to finagle one from column C.

  • Similar things have happened in the USA. When I was young there was a popular song about a poor fellow named Charlie, who went to ride upon the MTA (the Boston transit system). I quote the relevant verse and chorus:

    Charlie handed in his dime
    At the Kendall Square Station
    And he changed for Jamaica Plain
    When he got there the conductor told him,
    “One more nickel.”
    Charlie could not get off that train.

    Did he ever return,
    No he never returned
    And his fate is still unlearn’d
    He may ride forever
    ‘neath the streets of Boston
    He’s the man who never returned.

    The song was originally political, for a candidate promising to make the fare structure more understandable.

  • jerry

    I too, was able to figure out what was going on and applaud Mr. Jennings for his cleverness !
    Some people ( the ones I know shall remain nameless, at least in this post ) do much the same thing over here in the states with the airlines.

    A few years ago someone needed to travel by air one way. It turned out the one way fare was actually $2 MORE than the round trip ticket ( go figure ). The reservationist was told to book the round trip and the return ticket would simply not be used. She was almost indignant saying ‘You cannot do that !’.
    ‘Really ? Watch me. Once your company has the money, they couldn’t care less whether either leg of ticket is ever used or not. Now book the round trip and mail the tickets !’

    A traveler needed to travel from Dallas Texas to Seattle Washington ( as I recall ). A trip of about 1800 miles by air.
    By doing some digging, he found that traveling from Houston Texas to Seattle, the fare was actually $300 LESS.
    Driving from Dallas to Houston – about 4 hours – well worth $300 at the time.
    The interesting part is that the plane he boarded in Houston STOPPED IN Dallas and was the aircraft he WOULD HAVE boarded had he booked from Dallas to Seattle !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    There are other examples but this kind of thing goes on all the time. All it takes is a bit of initiative and reasoning.

  • bradley13

    Just to pop in an alternative: Here in Switzerland the train tickets have prices basically proportional to the distance traveled. Within a city, things may be more confusing, but you can add a “city” option to any train ticket for about 3 quid, giving yourself unlimited local travel.

    Why the UK should have such obscure fares, I don’t know. Probably the same reason why they claim (or did when I lived there) incredible punctuality rates, despite the trains never actually being on time. It was all in the fine print: “punctuality does not include events beyond our control” and apparently just about everything is beyond their control. I remember excuses of “leaves on the track” (never happens in autumn, totally unexpected), “the wrong kind of snow”, and other howlers that were not allowed to actually count as delays.

    For the American visitors, just imagine: A ticket from A to C (passing through b) costs $20, but individual tickets from A to B and from B to C can be had for $5 apiece. Something wrong with that math, no? Classic British thinking, makes sense to some government bureaucrat somewhere.

  • John

    This may not surprise anyone, and the info is readily available on the web, but just in case anyone has missed it, the trains in the US are astonishingly useless.

    Let us say I would like to go from Cincinnati to Cleveland (opposite corners of Ohio more or less) a distance of about 250 miles, or 400 km. (Something like Portsmouth to Manchester, perhaps?) The first thing I do is wait until Saturday, that’s when the first train leaves… at 1:23 am local time…. Except, that train is full… unless I want a sleeper car, otherwise I wait until Tuesday. Fortunately (?) I would want a sleeper, since the trip takes almost exactly 24 hours… including a layover in Chicago, IL. That ticket costs about $600 (about 290 pounds?) Had a regular fare been available it would be about a third of that cost.

    Instead, I can (and do) drive there in about 5 hours including stopping for a leisurely lunch.

    I’ll leave all the stuff about why this is and how it could be different and the differences between the two environments geographically, politically, and economically for another time…

    PS. Flying takes about as long as driving and costs about $300.

  • DocBud

    My understanding is that the train companies are legally obliged to sell the cheapest fare as this case shows.

    It is more likely, therefore, that the train company is not following the letter of the law rather than Mr Jennings not obeying the spirit of the law.

  • jerry

    I’ll bet some enterprising programmer could come up with an easy to use program to determine the cheapest way to get from point A to point B on the British railway system and sell said program for a handsome profit ( at least until it was declared illegal or immoral or fattening by some useless bureaucrat !!! )

  • Pardone

    Peak return Le Mans – Paris 2OO kms / 1h = £84

    Peak return Bristol – London 190 kms / 1h45 = £193

    Britain, the country where you pay through the nose for a disgusting, mediocre public transport system.

    In the UK, public transport costs 20% of income, whereas in other countries its around 4%.

  • Pardone

    Paul Marks seems to not understand the concept of “corporate welfare” and socializing losses while privatizing profits.

    Contracts are handed out on the basis of donations to government ministers, who will then later get cushy jobs on the board of directors of said contractors. Its a great money spinner for them, not so much for you and me, whose money is fleeced by these spivs and shysters. This is the reason the Tories are strangely silent on the appalling waste of taxpayer money that is rail.

    The private companies get all the profit, while the costs are dumped on the taxpayer. At least with state run rail profits are pumped back into the rail service instead of going into fat-cat CEO’s ludicrous bonuses or into the pockets of parasitic shareholders.

    Note that other countries have state run rail which is vastly superior to anything the UK has; Japan’s rail service is first world whereas the UK’s is at about the level of a third world s***hole). Its very simple; either have a state run service, or a private service with no taxpayer support at all. One or the other, no corrupt corporate welfare ponzis.

    Oh, and if you are wondering why Germany has much cheaper fares, well, that’s because the British commuter and taxpayer is subsidizing Germany’s rail network. Britons have indeed become slaves.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Japan has a state run rail service?

    Well, the rural bits of Japan’s rail service are state subsidised, but the railways are privately owned and operated.