One option for my commute is that I take a train from East Croydon to Clapham Junction, then change and take another train from Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction. When I arrived at East Croydon yesterday, the ticket barriers weren't working: the gates were all open, but each one showed a red X rather than a green arrow, so I couldn't touch in with my Oyster card. There was a uniformed member of station staff standing next to one of the gates, and he told everyone that we should explain the situation at the far end and hope that they'd let us out there.
My journey to Clapham Junction went fine, but then there was a team of ticket inspectors on the London Overground service. I explained the situation, but the inspector said that I should have touched in at Clapham Junction, so he issued me with a penalty fare. According to him, that's part of the terms and conditions, but I don't remember reading that anywhere, and I couldn't find anything relevant on the web last night. E.g. the TfL website has terms and conditions for the website itself, but nothing about using the Oyster card. He also asked whether I get a discount on my Oyster card (similar to a Freedom pass), and I said no, which sparked a debate with his colleague.
Her: "Yes you do, you get half price tickets on buses."
Me: "No I don't."
Her: "Yes you do. I can see that you only paid 80p on the bus on Friday."
Me: "Yes, that's because of price capping."
It doesn't bode well when ticket inspectors don't understand how their own system works. It also didn't help that there was a bit of a language barrier.
The penalty fare is £80, although they reduce that to £40 if you pay within 21 days. I paid a £1.50 contribution towards the cost on the spot (equivalent to a train ticket from Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction), but I refused to pay the rest there and then. I've appealed to IRCAS, which "stops the clock", i.e. if they reject my appeal then the 21 day countdown will resume at that point.
There are a couple of odd quirks in the IRCAS process, which don't inspire confidence. For instance, here's the message when they asked me to confirm the reference number:
I'm not sure what the difference is between the two "No" buttons... Also, after I'd entered my details, they said that it would help if I sent them a scan/photo of the notice. I've done that, and they sent me an email today: "This case has now been put on hold pending receipt of the Penalty Fare Notice details from the Transport Provider." So, even though I gave them the reference number and a photo, they still need to wait for the ticket inspectors to send in their own copy. This implies that the ticket inspectors don't do any kind of data entry as a matter of routine.
When I went through East Croydon today, the same thing happened: the gates were open and I couldn't touch in. This time, when I got to Clapham Junction I went past my platform and spoke to the staff at the ticket barrier. I asked them whether I could touch in, but they said no. Apparently nobody from East Croydon had phoned them to report a problem. So, I got onto my train, then got caught by another pair of ticket inspectors. This time, they said that I should have gone out through the ticket barrier and come back in again. I wouldn't need any permission from the staff on duty for that, but I would be charged an extra fare (up to £8.30), and I'd have to phone up TfL to claim a refund on that later. So, effectively they're saying that if they have a problem with their system then I should lend them money until it's sorted. At least I'm in a position where I can afford that, but I can see this being difficult for people who are on a tighter budget. It also seems as though they're making the rules up as they go along. I wouldn't be surprised if I try doing this tomorrow and then I get a different problem, e.g. if the card reader says "passback attempted" because I've tried to go through the ticket barrier twice in quick succession. Aside from that, there are often times when I have to run between platforms to catch my next train before it leaves: the inspector today said that I'm responsible for buying my own ticket, but am I expected to delay my journey because their technology isn't working properly?
Yesterday I spoke to the ticket inspectors on the train, and gave them all my details. Today I was feeling a bit more bolshy, and I was curious about how much legal authority they actually have. Based on prior experience with the TV licencing people (who admitted that they send "robust" letters before they have evidence of evasion), I wondered whether I have to cooperate with the inspectors, or whether they just rely on people doing what they're asked. So, I refused to give them my details, and I refused to get off the train. However, the inspector then fetched a plain clothes policeman who was sitting nearby, and I cooperated with him. So, that meant that I gave my details on the platform, and had to wait 15 minutes for the next train. Based on that, my advice is to go along with them on the train, although that doesn't mean that you need to put up with them moralising at you.
The thing is, I could understand it if I was actually trying to dodge the fare. E.g. Kensington Olympia only installed ticket barriers recently: they used to have an Oyster reader on the platform, so you could touch in or out, but it was easy to avoid it. So, if I'd been caught in the act then I'd accept the punishment. However, I'm ready and willing to pay the fare for my journey, and I've done everything that the uniformed staff have asked me to do, and I don't think it's fair to punish me for that.
Talking to the ticket inspectors today was also a frustrating experience. I mentioned that the same thing happened yesterday, and one of them said: "So you got a penalty fare yesterday but you did the same thing today." No, I didn't! I tried to do things differently but the station staff wouldn't cooperate. She then said that she doesn't know what's happening at East Croydon, so she only has my word for it that there's been a problem with the ticket barriers. I suggested that she could phone the station to verify my account, but she refused because East Croydon isn't one of their (London Overground's) stations. I understand that British Rail got broken up into lots of different networks, but I neither know nor care about the internal arrangements of their corporate structure. I pay money to TfL when I top-up my Oyster card, and they charge me a single fare when I touch in and out. So, I shouldn't need to know which company owns each station.
I did consider taking a photo of the ticket barriers at East Croydon today, so that I'd have evidence of the problem. However, I know that you need a permit to film on the tube and it wouldn't surprise me if the same thing applied to other stations too.
Maybe the moral of this story is that I need to be more active, and cycle the whole way to/from work (27 km each way) rather than taking the train. Or maybe I should stick to cardboard season tickets (for as long as they're around) so that I don't need to rely on technology. Bah.
Edit (15-Oct-2013): The IAS have now replied to both appeals. Both letters were pretty much the same: "Having assessed this case your appeal has been accepted." They've said that I have to pay £1.50 for each journey (the equivalent of a single fare); that's slightly odd since I've already paid that for one of the journeys, so I may need to poke a bit further there. Still, it's basically a happy ending. I'll print these letters out and keep them with me in case I have any more trouble with ticket inspectors.