Can I challenge a fine after I bought the wrong rail ticket?

I was in Suffolk for a weekend in March, just before the lockdown, and I needed to buy a rail ticket to get home to London, which I did online via Trainline. I bought a return for outward travel on the Monday morning for £15.50 with a 26–30 railcard – in the (wildly optimistic) expectation that I might be returning again within the month. But I didn’t realise I had got the two legs of the journey mixed up, so what I thought was my outward bound ticket on that day was actually the return portion. I had hoped to explain to a member of staff on the train that I made a mistake, but no one came round to check (apparently due to the coronavirus restrictions). By the time I arrived at Liverpool Street station my phone had died and I couldn’t present a valid ticket to the staff on the gate.

I explained I had accidentally bought the wrong ticket, but to my surprise the Greater Anglia/Abellio staff member handed me a penalty fare, with a potential charge of £96.40. I couldn’t get through on the phone to appeal, leaving me unable to explain that I made a genuine mistake.

EA, London

Passenger numbers on UK trains slumped in the run-up to the lockdown and have taken a further tailspin since – now down to 5% of normal journeys, with users restricted to key workers only. But you took this trip just before the tougher restrictions came in, and before rail operators cut back their timetables. Clearly these are unusual times, but your experience reflects the importance of making sure you have a valid ticket and are able to show a digital one.

Train guards who usually check tickets on board are able to exert discretion when assessing whether a passenger without a valid ticket has made a genuine mistake or is trying to commit fraud. However, you were only checked at the station and because your phone ran out of charge, you were not able to show anything. In the end Greater Anglia waived your penalty notice, which we think was generous.

Greater Anglia says: “Our customer service team was able to help EA, and we are pleased he was satisfied with the outcome. All passengers travelling with us should always have the correct ticket – and if it’s on a mobile, their phone should have enough charge to show it.

“Anyone unsure about whether they have the right ticket can speak to station staff, or press the help button on our ticket machines. During the coronavirus outbreak, on those trains with conductors, they are still available to help, but located in the cab at the rear of the train. We would remind people that at the moment only essential key workers should be travelling on our trains.”

We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email us at consumer.champions@theguardian.com or write to Consumer Champions, Money, the Guardian, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Please include a daytime phone number. Submission and publication of all letters is subject to terms and conditions

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