Here's how electronic ticketing gates perpetuate inequality

Electronic ticketing barriers in Melbourne. Image: Marcus Wong/Wikimedia Commons.

The New South Wales government recently announced its latest attempt to crack-down on fare dodgers on public transport, using the high-tech medium of really, really big gates. The state’s minister for transport and infrastructure, Andrew Constance, announced that “jump-proof” barriers will be installed at all Sydney train stations over the next few years.

For readers unfamiliar with these gates: picture a stereotypical pair of British gnashers, but 10 feet tall. These tombstone-like “paddles” are tall enough to obstruct any amateur pole-vaulters, and grey enough to ensure that your morning commute remains a despair drenched odyssey.

Constance cites a number of European cities as the inspiration behind these gates – and he appears to believe that this will restore some balance to Sydney’s public transport. “Customers who pay their way expect others to do the same,” he said. “This is another way to deter the dodgers who are taking everyone else for a ride.”

The experience of those cities which have adopted electronic gates suggests that the minister is correct to believe that they’ll help to limit fare-dodging. His belief that this will create a fairer system, however, could be slightly misplaced.


When electronic gates were first introduced they were able to accept paper tickets. Since then, though, our robot masters have evolved, and most cities have adopted electronic travel cards as well. The usual model is that the commuter pays a small deposit for the card and then tops it up, either daily, weekly or monthly.

So far, so good. But the last 10-15 years have seen many public transport companies start to require that cards hold at least the amount of money required to undertake the most expensive journey possible. Once again, this is billed as an anti-fare-dodging tactic – but it also means that some forms of public transport, those with a wide or expensive reach, are increasingly off-limits to low-income travellers.

In Amsterdam, individual tram journeys tend to cost around €1.20, making it a relatively inexpensive way to travel. Train journeys, however, require travellers to have €20 on their cards at all times. By insisting that electronic cards carry a minimum pre-paid sum at all times, transport companies are effectively taking out an interest free loan on any unused credit.

Unfortunately many low-income passengers struggle to keep these interest free loans topped up. If an unexpected journey eats into their pre-paid credit, the next €3 journey they take will cost them three or four times that at the ticket barrier. This is a problem that the residents of Sydney are already familiar: the starting top-up amount for their own Opal travel cards is a minimum of A$40 online and A$10 offline.

Constant double-digit payments are rarely a problem for high-earners – but they can have a devastating impact on the budgets of low-income travellers. This can be seen in Brussels, where fare-dodging has been used as a reason to phase out the (cheaper) paper tickets and demand that customers buy electronic cards. These travel cards have been promoted as a way for travellers to save money; often, though, they instead enable transport companies to reach deeper into the pockets of low-income passengers.

If Constance and the New South Wales government wish to ensure that their own electronic system doesn’t unfairly tax low-income travellers, there are a number of things they can do. They can give travellers the option to buy individual tickets on the travel cards, rather than insisting that they cover the most expensive journey available.

They can ensure that ticket machines offer the option of electronic refunds on travel cards, rather than insisting that all money placed on a card effectively belongs to the travel company.

They can require travel companies make it easier for travellers to transfer money between cards.

Or perhaps they can require travel companies actively offer travellers the option of a refund on money that has remained unused on a travel card for more than three months.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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