The strain of the train

Observations on passenger protest

This is a tale of our times, of how a middle-class, middle-aged woman accidentally joined the criminal classes on her way to the ballet and what it says about our railways.

One dark evening earlier this month, after the above-inflation fare increases, I set out for the West End, dressed for Swan Lake in fake fur and pearl earrings. Unusually, there was a queue at the station ticket office, which I abandoned in favour of catching the train and buying a ticket at the fares to pay kiosk, as I had done before.

Half a dozen rail officials were lounging at the kiosk at Victoria when I approached and asked for a Travelcard. To my surprise, the group leader flatly refused and no reasoning about past practice made any difference. I had a choice - pay a £20 penalty fare or, like a naughty pupil with detention, travel back to Crystal Palace and buy a ticket there. I was damned if I was going to pay, given how much of my life had been coloured by delays on Southern trains, so I wandered off to explore the options.

No train was due to leave for Crystal Palace or anywhere I could hop off, buy a ticket and get back before the curtain went up. I was stuck in Trainland, held to ransom by petty officials. I resented it, and so I did something unprecedented. After a final vain attempt to use my Oyster card, I Walked Through The Barrier.

I do not usually engage in direct action; my last brush with the law was 25 years ago, when reprimanded as a teenager for cycling on the pavement. But years of frustration born of the delays, overcrowding, Byzantine fare structures, zoning systems and eye-watering prices that characterise British rail travel boiled over and something snapped. This was a protest about the power imbalance in a relationship where one party consistently fails to keep its part of the bargain and then fleeces the other - the fare-paying passenger.

I'm not the only one who has started to revolt. At the end of this month, the passengers' campaign group More Train Less Strain is holding its second fare strike against First Great Western, reputedly Britain's worst train company. Last year, 2,000 people took part in a Bath-based protest; this time the strike, which now involves Oxford, promises to be bigger. Tony Ambrose, the MTLS co-ordinator, says FGW's 10 per cent fare increase in January has gone down badly with travellers sick of sardine-like travelling conditions.

"They're taking money out of our pockets and passing it on to shareholders and government," he says. "Passengers come at the bottom of the pile." He doesn't anticipate trouble from the police, who last year advised FGW staff to open the barriers and let the striking passengers out.

My one-woman protest went less smoothly. I was stopped by the police on my way to the Underground station. The older community support officer was apologetic. "We have to do this," he said. "We have to hand you over - they own the trains, everything," he added, gesturing to the ground beneath our feet. With that I was escorted back behind the barrier, into the hands of the railway boys.

A huge operation was now in full swing, involving more personnel than you could dream of if you were actually looking for a rail or police official. A fraud prevention officer called Phil cautioned me. I was bemused - I'd only ever heard that phrase "Anything you say . . ." on the telly. A few yards away, a bewildered thirty-something was being interrogated. "I didn't know," he repeated. "I don't usually use trains." He'd fallen foul of the fact that while you can use a pre-paid Oyster card on the overground system, and any kind of Oyster on Tubes and buses, you can't - stay with me - use a pay-as-you-go Oyster on the trains. But the officials took a dim view of the renegade's ignorance, and he was soon led away to the fine collector.

Reader, I stayed out of court. After a while, Phil tired of trying to extract schoolgirl contrition and dropped the case. But as he relieved me of my credit card for the £20 penalty fare - the price of my freedom - he kept fishing for gratitude for his magnanimity. I wasn't sorry then, and am not now, for I - like the fare-strikers on First Great Western - am proud to be a revolting passenger.

Alex Klaushofer is collecting stories about extreme railway penalties and can be contacted by emailing:

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer