Are Metro ticket inspectors abusing their power?

Originally published on Hijacked (April 10 2015)

Jasmine* thought about running half a dozen times before she actually did. It was the tenth time she had been stopped by Metro ticket inspectors in the space of four months. Standing in the rush and press of Melbourne Central station, with two officers closing in, Jasmine already owed Public Transport Victoria (PTV) over $700 in fines.

“At that point, I’d been fined so often and for such stupid reasons that I really had no choice,” Jasmine tells Hijacked. “I didn’t have enough money to pay rent let alone another 250 dollar fine for being 25 cents under my Myki fare. I had to run for it.”

She was stopped by five more officers at the escalators.

“They came from all sides and went to grab me,” says Jasmine. “I felt like a criminal. It was terrifying.”

Jasmine’s story is not uncommon. A study commissioned by Metlink in 2008 found commuters predominantly saw ticket inspectors as a “threat,” with most describing staff as “rude, abrasive and aggressive”.

In 2013, their unpopularity only intensified when an officer body-slammed a 15-year-old girl into the concrete floor of Flinders Street Station over what was reportedly a $2.20 fare evasion.

Incidents like this have been hitting headlines ever since. Just last month, V-line inspectors were accused of excessive force after wrestling with a young couple at Lara station. Footage captured by witnesses shows a male passenger screaming “Get off my head!” while the female passenger is thrown up against a fence.

In 2013, officers held a 62-year-old man to the ground and yanked his pants down to his ankles when he was found drinking cider on a train and seven months ago, a crowd begged myki inspectors to let go of a young high school student who they had also held down.

Today, the officer who slammed that 15-year-old girl to the ground could still be riding the Victorian rails, after the incident went unpunished by PTV. Despite stern criticism from the Victorian Ombudsman and an online petition of almost 40,000 signatures calling for tighter regulation, a transport department review cleared the officer, without interviewing either the girl involved or witnesses.

Spokesperson for Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), Daniel Bowen, says there have “long been concerns about the training of Authorised Officers”.

“While these types of incidents are rare, the fact that they happen at all is cause for concern,” Bowen tells Hijacked. “Training needs to be improved, particularly in the area of conflict resolution.”

Rebekah*, 22 and a long time V-line traveller, describes the behaviour of Metro’s officers as “outrageous”. In two years, she has been fined over eight times, mostly for allegedly “not touching on”. Two of these penalties have since been overturned, but Rebekah continues to feel “harassed”.

“While I understand that officers have a job to do and that yes, some people fair evade on purpose, I really am frustrated at the lack of common sense and in some cases, compassion shown by public transport officers,” she tells Hijacked.

“Just the other day, I saw them fining a woman who couldn’t speak English and was clearly a confused tourist. She tried desperately to communicate to them in her own language but they wouldn’t budge.”

According to Tim*, 27, not all ticket inspectors deserve such a reputation but more needs to be done to iron out the bad seeds.

“Of the three inspectors I’ve dealt with, two of them were helpful and sympathetic,” says Tim. “The third was rude, suspicious and utterly uninterested in pursuing fairness. His apathy may end up costing me hundreds of dollars. I think there are enough bad officers for it to be a problem.”

But, the war on fare evasion is ongoing. According to a PTV spokesperson, it is a problem that still costs the community over $50 million dollars a year.

“Local, undergraduate students receive significantly discounted public transport when they carry proof of their concession entitlement and international students can access iUSEpass,” the spokesperson tells Hijacked. “But, one of the main forms of fare evasion is passengers paying significantly discounted concession fares when they should be paying full fares.”

The good news for Metro is that fare evasion at last seems to be on the decline. Recent research by PTV puts it at its lowest ever recorded level. Perhaps this is thanks, after all, to their new wave of authorised officers, armed with jazzy protective vests and the power to issue $75 fines on the spot. Such new penalties more than halve existing fines but come without the right of appeal.

And yet, PTV’s latest quarterly report (from July to September 2014) which included a survey of 400 commuters, found their introduction also coincided with an increase in negative sentiment towards officers.

“They seem to be trained to reach quota and not trained to engage people in a respectful manner,” says Tim, who admits he’s felt “pressured” to take the $75 penalty himself.

Rebekah thinks fines should better reflect the individual infraction. “Considering the average wage of a full-time university student working casual hours is around 220 dollars a fortnight, I don’t think these fines are just,” she says.

But Daniel Bowen from the PTUA still stands by the importance of ticket inspectors.

“Ultimately, making it as easy as possible to pay a fare, and as hard as possible to travel without doing so, is likely to help most,” Bowen tells Hijacked. “Giving passengers the expectation that their ticket will be checked every time they travel would cut fare evasion and help prevent this kind of confrontation.”

So, for those still harbouring mixed feelings towards inspectors, at least now there’s camouflage.

melbourne-train-seat-628

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons

By Sherryn Groch

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