Commuter train hell. Photo: Getty Images
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“They’re parasites”: Passengers fined for standing in first class carriages on busy trains

The great train robbery?

Passengers in overcrowded commuter trains are being fined for standing in first class.

The Surrey Mirror ran a story this morning about “harassed commuters” in packed trains being fined by ticket inspectors. One passenger on the 7.36am service from Oxted to London Bridge, Peter Boyland, told the paper that he saw ticket inspectors for Southern Railway fining passengers standing in first class, “including an elderly woman”.

Southern rush hour trains are notoriously busy, and the operator had the second worst punctuality record in 2014/15. One commuter called Shane, who uses the Brighton line daily from Gatwick to London, tells me he sees such behaviour regularly.

“Southern are shameful, they don’t use common sense,” he says. “They actively have people checking first class tickets but no one else’s. I see it on a daily basis.”

He adds: “I find it infuriating, most people can't stand – let alone sit – and yet these parasites are actively looking to fine people.”

Another commuter, Hannah, a 26-year-old executive assistant, has a similar story to tell about her morning service between St Albans and St Pancras – on the Thameslink train.

“A ticket officer was standing by the door of first class and a passenger asked him if we could use the carriage as it was so busy, due to the Thameslink service being so poor and constantly late! He then said ‘yes’ and then about five minutes later he came in to fine everyone.”

A spokesperson from Thameslink responds to this claim: “The reported behaviour of this member of staff is surprising and not to the high standards we pride ourselves in; we will be investigating. Passengers pay a premium to travel in first class and our policy is that a first class ticket is required to occupy a first class area.”

Passengers report that delayed services and lack of capacity force them to stand in first class.

When to “declassify” carriages is at the discretion of the train conductors. But they rarely decide to do so, even in busy commuter trains, because of those who have paid a premium for a first class ticket.

The more standard class ticket holders there are standing up, the more likely conductors are to make the decision to “declassify”, but there is nothing stopping them fining standard class passengers standing in first class. One commuter called Charlie tells me, incredulously, “You can go into first but not if you stop walking!”

The MP for Reigate in Surrey, Crispin Blunt, says, “It’s completely disgraceful in an overcrowded train, where it would be even more crowded in standard class.”

As a representative of a commuter belt town, Blunt has long been locked in battle with the train operator. “Southern’s attitude to their customers I believe is disgraceful,” he says. “They’re putting revenue maximisation above levels of service.”

He calls his constituents’ journeys to work “bloodstained” and says they travel in “emergency-type conditions”.

Sam Gyimah, MP for East Surrey, is also outraged. “The performance of Southern Rail continues to be extremely disappointing,” he tells me. “Fining passengers forced to stand in first class is absolutely the wrong priority when it is clear that this is a symptom of a lack of capacity on peak services.”

A spokesperson for Southern refutes the claim that standing passengers were fined on that particular journey:

“A penalty fare may be issued if a standard class ticket holder travels in first class accommodation. In this instance, passengers who were issued with penalty fares were sitting in first class accommodation whilst holding standard class tickets.

“First class accommodation is not declassified automatically if the train is busy, but Conductors can use their discretion to declassify if it is deemed necessary.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.