Penalty Fares on the Severn Beach Line

Class 166 train stopped at Lawrence Hill Station, may 2024

The Severn Beach Line was for decades a ‘buy on board’ route, where passengers did not need to buy a ticket before getting on their train. This has changed. Passengers boarding without tickets could now get £100 penalty fares. We think GWR should do more to make sure infrequent travellers understand this.

Revenue Protection

Bristol Rail Campaign has for many years suspected that passenger numbers on the Severn Beach Line have been underestimated. Passengers were often unable to buy tickets, or deliberately avoided doing so. This damaged our case for better, more frequent trains. We support better revenue protection.

But revenue protection has historically been difficult on this line. Trains are often crowded, distances between stations are short, and fares are relatively low. Deploying extra staff on board probably costs more than the value of tickets they can sell.

Something had to change.

Penalty Fare Route

On 23rd January 2023 the Severn Beach line became a ‘Penalty Fare Route’. On the same date, the minimum penalty fare rose from £20 to £100. You must now have a valid ticket before travelling, unless you are unable to purchase one.

GWR put up standard yellow ‘Penalty Fare’ signs at stations, and ‘soft launched’ the change with on-train announcements. They also deployed extra staff at some stations to reinforce the message that the rules had changed. Train managers initially explained the change, rather than enforcing penalty fares.

So people who use the line daily should be aware of the change. But what about those who travel less frequently?

Signage at stations

Penalty Fare signs at stations satisfy the statutory requirements for enforcing penalty fares. But these are often not in places where all users will see them.

Clifton Down Station, for example, has three entrances. There is a sign near the southern entrance, but not at the northern and western entrances.

There are no yellow penalty signs visible on either platform. This means that a significant number of passengers can enter and leave the station without ever seeing a sign. This includes anyone who needs step-free access, as the only entrance with a yellow sign has a flight of narrow steps.

There is only one ticket machine, located on the Bristol-bound platform. A Severn Beach-bound passenger requiring step-free access would have to make a 400m detour to use it.

Montpelier also has a yellow sign at only one of its three entrances. Again this is not visible from the platform, and easily missed by many passengers.

GWR’s view

We raised these concerns with GWR, who said:

We did run a comms campaign, in addition to advising National Rail Enquiries and Rail Delivery Group.  As part of our awareness campaign we delivered a soft roll out initially at stations where we have installed TVM’s [ticket machines].  Each station has large Yellow Penalty Fare Warning posters, audible announcements informing passengers that it is a Penalty Fare station and the map is available on our web pages.

Fares on [Severn Beach Line] have not changed materially since 2007 and are now among the very lowest in the country.  So there really is no excuse for not buying a ticket.

We were disappointed by this response; particularly by their final comment. This is not about the level of fares. Our view is that GWR have not done enough to ensure that innocent mistakes are not penalised.

How do you avoid a penalty fare?

The onus is firmly on you, the passenger, to comply with a complex set of rules. You should read GWR’s Buy before you Board policy, together with their Revenue protection and prosecutions policy. You may also want to look at their Penalty fares map, which show which lines penalty fares apply on.

Half the stations on the line do not currently have ticket machines. So although it is a Penalty Fare route, these are not Penalty Fare stations. If you board at Severn Beach, St Andrews Road, Avonmouth, Shirehampton, Sea Mills or Stapleton Road you are still allowed to buy on board the train. This will change as further ticket vending machines are installed; again, it’s up to you to keep abreast of this or risk a heavy fine.

You can buy a ticket at your local station if it has a ticket machine. Other options include online apps such as Trainline or GWR’s own app, or you could use GWR’s tap in, tap out pay as you go card.

But is it fair that a passenger boarding at Montpelier without a ticket could be served a £100 penalty fare by the same Train Manager who minutes later is able to sell a £1.50 ticket to someone getting on at Stapleton Road?

How can this be improved?

We think the first step is to put up new posters, visible from the platform, at all Severn Beach line stations. These need to clearly state:

  • That the status of the Severn Beach Line has changed;
  • At which stations Penalty Fares apply:
  • What to do if you can’t buy a ticket because:
    • The best fare is not offered;
    • Cash is not accepted;
    • The machine is not working;
    • You can’t get to it.

A map, similar to this, would further help passengers to understand the line’s status:

GWR Penalty Fares Map, showing Severn Beach Line
GWR Penalty Fares Map, showing Severn Beach Line

Since the Severn Beach line is now a Penalty Fare route, it would seem sensible to apply the same rules to all stations. For this to happen, GWR need to get on with installing ticket machines at remaining stations.

Clifton Down Station, with two trains and a large number of passengers. May 2024.
Clifton Down Station: should there be a staffed ticket office here?

There may be a business case for opening a staffed ticket office at Clifton Down. This station is busier than Bridgwater and Stroud stations, both of which have staffed ticket offices.

Looking further ahead, we will continue to press for better, integrated ticketing across the region.


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Comments

One response to “Penalty Fares on the Severn Beach Line”

  1. Teresa Mcgill avatar
    Teresa Mcgill

    Thank you for taking this up with GWR.
    Keep arguing for a staffed ticket office at Clifton Down.

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