Guest Post: 7 Reasons My Experience With Northern Rail Was Shocking
Okay. This has never happened before, and it may never happen again but today, we’re bringing you a guest post on a Tuesday. This is not because we’ve decided we can’t be bothered writing something ourselves, or that we can’t get enough material from the world not ending. We could possibly write about that for a week. We’re posting this today because well, frankly, a friend of one of the 7 Reasons team has just been through a ghastly and iniquitous experience at the hands of Northern Rail and fortunately – as a former journalist – he was in a great position to write it up for us. We have, in the parlance of his former trade, a scoop. So here’s indie-popster, former-journalist, father, husband-to-be and public relations man Conrad Astley to tell his tale of woe. This should be a cautionary tale to us all. Take it away, Con.
When it comes to writing that autobiography, everyone needs their chapter about standing up for truth and justice. Their tale about sticking it to The Man. Their clammy-palmed, seat-of-the-pants courtroom drama.
Well, here’s mine. And it was all about fifty pence.
1. Yes, You Read That Right. 50p. Enough money to buy a packet of chewing gum, a bag of crisps, maybe a chocolate bar if you stick to the cheaper brands. Enough to buy roughly one seventh of a pint if you drink in tastefully lit venues full of attractive, fashionable people, or maybe a quarter of a pint if you prefer hostelries that smell of dog hair and failure. Yet for some reason, Northern Rail – one of the country’s biggest train companies who operate services from Carlisle to Crewe – insisted this sum was worthy of a criminal court’s time.
2. This Went On For A Long Time. The story started last June, when I was making a return journey from Hyde to Manchester Piccadilly and mistakenly bought the wrong ticket. Yes, for readers outside Greater Manchester, that is Hyde of Harold Shipman fame. For reasons far too tedious to go into here, I was travelling into the city centre from one station, with the intention of returning to another several hundred yards away.
3. I Made A Mistake, But In Good Faith. As the two stations were so close, I thought both journeys cost the same amount, so for the sake of convenience I bought a return ticket from the station I was returning to. It turned out I was wrong, and the difference between the two journeys was in fact 50p. A Northern Rail official brought me to one side, took my name and address and, despite the tiny amount involved, told me in no uncertain terms that I had committed a criminal offence which carried a maximum fine of £1,000.
4. I Tried To Make Amends. I tried explaining that this was an honest mistake and offered to pay a fixed penalty notice – once in person to the official and twice in writing – and even sent them a letter of complaint as a shot across the bow. What happened next can only be described as strange. I received a letter of apology from Northern – admittedly for the fact they had not initially replied to my complaint rather than for the incident itself – along with a free one-day travel voucher. I assumed the whole incident had been forgotten about. After all, nobody would prosecute someone they’d apologised to in writing, would they?
5. Suddenly... It turns out they would. Fast forward to the first week of the new year, and a court summons landed on my doormat, accompanied by a list of witness statements and a sheet explaining that I was being prosecuted under legislation dating back to the great Victorian age of steam. Was I going to be transported to the colonies? Not quite, but somewhat disturbingly, it did state I could – technically – be sent to prison for up to three months.*
Of course, I didn’t need to worry and this was no big deal. In fact, the first few legal people I spoke to said the best thing to do would be to plead guilty and go all out with the mitigation.
After all, the worst I’d be likely to get was a conditional discharge, as well as having to pay Northern’s £100 costs. And with a full time job, a young child and a wedding coming up, I didn’t need the hassle of going through a trial.
6. But It Was Wrong. But on the other hand, doing this would mean getting a criminal record, which – no matter how small the offence – I’d have had to declare whenever I applied for a job, took out an insurance policy, or went on holiday to America. Was that worth it for 50p? Some niggling thing deep down inside said I needed to fight this.
Now, if there ever was an advert for joining a trade union, this is it. I contacted the good people on Unison (my trade union)’s legal advice line who told me that, as the train journey had been to get me into work, this was technically employment-related and that they’d pay for my representation.
They also advised me to plead not guilty and even got me a barrister. This was getting serious.
The case was finally heard on 16 May, three court hearings, 11 months, countless meetings and phone calls to lawyers, and a great deal of stress later.
7. They Came Out With A Lovely Line. In order to win the case, Northern needed to prove three things: that I was travelling on the train on that day, that I had bought the ticket in question, and – beyond all reasonable doubt – that I had intentionally set out to defraud them. The prosecution said that if everyone used the railway defrauded them of fifty pence every day, the rail companies would lose a huge amount. I can’t remember the exact amount quoted, but I do remember feeling very concerned for the shareholders. But, as my defence barrister pointed out in his closing statement, if my intention had been to defraud anyone, I might not have chosen a station a few hundred yards away from the one where I’d embarked. Perhaps the true fraudster might have gone for one of the three other stations closer into Manchester, which would of course have carried smaller fares. This might have been the clincher, as the magistrates eventually found me not guilty.
If a single ounce of common sense had been applied to the situation, it would never have gone anywhere near a court, and I would not like to estimate how much this little episode cost the taxpayer.
As a regular passenger, I pay Northern Rail the best part of a grand a year for what is frankly a shoddy service. It’s good to know where their priorities lie.
*The 7 Reasons team added that asterisk: A young child could have been deprived of her father for three months which would surely have hampered her development, for nothing. For absolutely no reason. Shame on you, Northern Rail. Shame on you.