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Public sector inefficiency: double paying bus fares

A bus, not entirely unlike the 87

A bus, not entirely unlike the 87

I’m not being entirely fair here, but I want to have a rant (perhaps to vent some tension built up from the various exchanges I’m having with the PFRA).

I’ve been landed with an Unpaid Fair Notice by Transport for London. I got on the 87 at Lavender Hill and my card was dead. Not sure why, it was fine the last time I used it, but nothing registered. I started to get off the bus, assuming I’d have to get a replacement from the local shop, but the driver called me back, dug out a little yellow notepad and proceeded to issue me with the Unpaid Fare Notice to cover the £1 pre-pay fare. My apologies to those passengers delayed while this happened.

At first I was rather impressed, like most people I’ve seen passengers waved on when they had a failed card or the reader was broken and assumed that at least some of them were getting to travel for free (I’m not sure why but people abusing public transport is one my real bêtes noir). I now had a yellow slip of proof that TfL do care about revenue protection – a yellow slip telling me that I had five days to pay or face a penalty charge notice being issued.

But as I come to pay, I’ve started to realise: I’m ripping myself off.

By paying the fare now (either by cheque or by phone with a credit card) I will be costing myself even more money. This isn’t an issue about the time, or about the cost of postage, it’s about the fact that I know it costs more than the £1 they will get to process the cheque or credit card payment. I know this because I used to work within TfL, but actually it’s fairly common sense – from receiving the letter in the post room to paying the cheque in it takes someone, somewhere, time. And while a credit card would be quicker, there’s always a commission taken out by the credit card company.

And of course this all this excludes the cost of issuing and monitoring the unpaid fare.

And who will pay this extra processing cost? Well, passengers like you and me. So I’m paying the fare. Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll be paying over some money which will track through the system and, eventually, defray the costs of processing my cheque.

Yes, I know that if they didn’t do this then everyone would hop on with a broken card and travel for free. But that seems to be what usually happens anyway. Even if drivers started wielding the yellow book more often, the experienced failed Oystercard blagger will have a false name and address ready. Or even just say the card is a Travelcard. Actually, even the inexperienced Travelcard blagger will know it now (if they’ve read this).

It seems to me that this is a case where (perhaps) no-one has actually thought about the cost of enforcement.

In the end I opted to pay by cheque, mainly so I could suggest they recoup the processing cost from Croydon Tramlink so I don’t have to pay twice – sorry to Croydon, it’s a terrible blow coming after your lazy journalist swine flu devastation:

Dear Sir or Madam,
Unpaid Fare Notice: UFN 1002489

Please find enclosed a cheque, for £1.00, made payable to Transport for London in respect of the above Unpaid Fare Notice issued at 10.10am on 24 August 2009 when my Oyster card suddenly failed.

I hope the processing cost per cheque isn’t significantly higher than the £1.28 it was when I worked within the TfL family a year ago.

You may have noticed I didn’t simply give a false name and address or pretend my Oyster pre-pay card was actually a Travelcard but accepted the Unpaid Fare Notice. I hope this honesty is rewarded by the processing cost being recouped via fares from a form of transport I don’t use – I’d hate to have to pay twice!  May I suggest Croydon Tramlink?

Kind regards, etc.

(To be a little bit more positive about TfL the station assistant at Pimlico was absolutely fabulous in helping me through the process of getting a replacement Oystercard and I’ve also dropped them a line congratulating him.)

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