It took ten years of political wrangling, more than £1 billion to build and is the envy of towns and cities all over the country.
Yet Metrolink, Greater Manchester’s showpiece tram system, is being abused daily by freeloading crooks who are now using social media to help themselves and others avoid paying their fares. In other words, stealing from the rest of us.
The organised group of dodgers is using social media alerts to pre-warn co-conspirators about the presence of ticket inspectors at given tram stops.
A typical interaction would be: “Be Aware! 4 wasps (inspectors) at St Peter’s Square checking your tickets at all exits as soon as you get off the tram.”
Exact details around the extent of cheating and the amount of lost revenue due to fare dodging is regarded by Metrolink bosses and Transport for Greater Manchester as commercially sensitive and the authorities have been very reluctant to reveal figures.
But losses running into millions of pounds were revealed by Rail Technology Magazine in 2016 – before the completion of Metrolink’s busy Second City Crossing from Exchange Square to St Peter’s Square – following a successful Freedom of Information request.
Figures released through the Information Commissioner’s office revealed that the amount of revenue Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) had lost through passengers travelling on the Metrolink network without tickets has grown from £2.1million in 2013-14, to £2.8 million in 2014-15, to £3.1 million in 2015-16 – a total of £8 million in just three years.
In the same period, the percentage of passengers observed travelling without a ticket also grew from 4.1% to 5.5%. There is no reason to believe that these figures have improved since 2016.
At the time, Peter Cushing, Metrolink director at TfGM, told the magazine: “When people are travelling without a ticket, this is not a victimless crime. This is about not paying towards the upkeep and expense of the Metrolink network.”
The number of passenger journeys on Metrolink has grown from 30 million in 2014 to 33 million in 2015 and hit 38 million in 2016 – 17. That figure is likely to have increased substantially with the opening of the Second City Crossing.
Cushing admitted to Rail Technology Magazine that catching fare dodgers is a challenge on Metrolink, which, unlike the London Underground, is ungated and, unlike Sheffield Supertrams, have no conductors on trams.
Anyone found without a valid ticket or pass is issued with a ‘standard fare’ – £50 for payments made within 14 days, £100 thereafter. If no payment has been made after 28 days the operator will begin court proceedings.
But TfGM bosses admit that running well over 100 trams a day over an 18 hour period serving 94 stops makes policing every one at all times prohibitively expensive.
When we asked Metrolink this week about the scale of fare dodging, a spokesperson would only say: “Fare evasion is something we take extremely seriously. We know that there are people who are prepared to take a chance and not pay for a ticket, but out day to day patrols and targeted operations prove that the risk is simply not worthwhile.
“All money from Metrolink ares is reinvested in the system for the benefit of our customers, which is why we take fare dodging so seriously and we will not hesitate to issue a standard fare to anyone travelling without a ticket.”
Last August, with much fanfare, TfGM’s Get Me There system was announced as a step towards delivering a fully integrated smart ticketing system across the whole city region. It allows users to purchase a range of products online “making travel easier and more flexible, with no need to carry cash or queue a ticket machines”.
But there appears to be no enhanced ‘beat the cheats’ mechanism within the system and TfGM bosses – and passengers who do pay their fares – have to rely on honesty, something which is not always forthcoming.