A scoop for the CBD

By Rhonda Dredge

Consumers can now travel to the CBD for special events without fear of hefty fines by Myki inspectors if they forget to touch on in the excitement of the chase.

On-the-spot fines, known as penalty fares, were scrapped by the Government on January 1 after reports of intimidation were investigated by the Public Transport Ombudsman.

Businesses are already benefitting from the move to a more sympathetic approach to fare enforcement.

Global ice-cream vendor Ben & Jerry’s attracted a large crowd to its Flinders Lane store for its Free Cone day in April.

The company still doesn’t know how many scoops it gave away but the queue extended all the way from Swanston St to the Central Arcade.

The queue began forming an hour before the birthday celebrations were due to begin. Most of the hopefuls were under 30 and they would have been vulnerable under the old penalty fare regime.

Penalty fares became a complex bargaining tool wielded by teams of officers more attuned to revenue protection and nabbing fare evaders than dealing with individual circumstances.

One girl who failed to clock on at RMIT just before the tram free zone was threatened with arrest when she tried to phone her boyfriend so she could pay the $75 up-front fine.

Her case was one of 743 complaints received by the PTO last year, most of them concerning travel to and within the CBD. Authorised officers were a major source of complaint, as were fines.

Officers, who operate in teams of three on the rail network, have been known to surround citizens, force them to produce identification, order them off trains and generally intimidate lone female travellers.

Passengers have felt pressured into paying penalty fares even when they thought they had touched on.

The issue of intimidation has been raised by complainants, says Ombudsman Treasure Jennings, but the officer culture is shifting. “There has been a broadening of skills to listen and understand the circumstances of the individual,” she said.

On-the-spot fines discriminated against low-income earners. Those who could not afford to pay up-front often became entangled in disputes with inspectors.

Figures just released by the Ombudsman show that complaints about authorised officer behaviour and infringement notices fell by 25 per cent last year, from 965 in 2015.

Ms Jennings has been arguing for a rethink of penalty fares and the role of authorised officers for two years.

“I have been pleased to see a review by the government and a renewed focus by PTV and operators on supporting the authorised officer role with clearer guidelines and training,” she said.

Businesses are seeing the benefits. The Free Cone promotion generated the largest spontaneous outbreak of queuing seen in Flinders Lane, according to witnesses. One observed the queue double in 10 minutes.

About 100 consumers were lined up by noon on April 4. Despite the hype and the more lenient transport regime, there were still a few doubters.

Brian from New Jersey was about 13th in line. He said he didn’t mind waiting because he didn’t have anything better to do that day.

Travellers can contact the Ombudsman on 1800 466 865.

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