‘For millions of us, riding on the tube is mostly a means of getting to work. Often it’s the most unpleasant part of the working day, and the bosses expect us to pay for it out of our own pockets! The bastards should be paying us! Every worker who’s not completely resigned to their miserable lot knows that a spot of theft and sabotage help to brighten up the working day. So lets extend this into the miserable journey into work – let’s refuse to pay their fares, and while we’re about it, let’s fuck up their advertising campaigns, their ticket barriers, their surveillance systems… Let’s use our imaginations!’
(Artful Dodger, Fare Dodgers’ Liberation Front news-sheet)
[NB: This post was written by a former cadre of the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front, South London commando… As originally posted there was a typographical error which may have caused offence, apologies to anyone who read that version, it’s been corrected. And the proofreading dept has been sacked. Again.]
In April 1994 London Underground introduced Penalty Fares for people caught travelling on the London tubes without a ticket. ‘Fare-dodging’ like this was a normal practice then – thousands would ‘jump’ the tube (and the bus). It was just part of daily life. Until the early ’90s it was pretty easy – very few stations had gates or barriers, many of the guards and workers couldn’t care less… Fare-dodging across a massive city where travel was in fact quite expensive (more expensive in some cases than now, definitely on the buses for instance) was necessary for people on the dole, on low pay – paying your way was not even viable for lots of us. But many more also far-dodged, just because they could get away with it.
This was pre-Oyster, pre-digital, pre-‘debit card as your travel pass’ days… It was like the wild west.
Even with the gradual introduction of barriers on the entire underground (a process midway at the time), there were so many ways of getting away with not buying a ticket. If your local station had a gate, the next one down often didn’t; or you could nip behind someone else when they put their ticket/travelcard through. This last was fine art – if you were nifty sometimes the person in front never even realised what you were up to… Other times they did and you could see the sympathetic grin, although there was occasionally the outraged double-take – “why should you travel free while I pay!?!” There was also the myriad portfolio of tricks based on the travel card – the (usually) daily ticket giving you a days’ travel for a set price… If you were only off underground late in the day, you could often buy one in the late afternoon/early eve for a quid (generally also supporting street homeless who tended to resell them), or get one free from a friendly face… Flash an old one at a guard too quick for them to really read it (a hugely satisfying version of his was the fact that some travelcards bought in newsagents had the date rubberstamped on then, but didn’t register the date until it went through a ticket machine. So if you used it on the day you bought it – stamped – but only on the bus, you could use it again only on the tube for another day, and get 2 days travel for the price of one! Eat your heart out Martin Lewis!) Another trick that sometimes worked was more labour intensive – for the gateless stations, use a travelcard for (say) 8 July, then pencil in a 1 or 2 in front, carefully, dot by dot (tickets then were dot matrix printed), and you had another day’s travel, so long as you only had to show it and they didn’t look too closely… This was art forgery, painstakingly undertaken by the great-grand-children of your monkish chroniclers…
Not paying was just a cultural norm, then. For some, like shoplifting, squatting, it was a weapon of economic struggle against capitalism; for many more it was a matter of survival, if you were on the dole, low paid, tube fares, rising every year – it became harder to travel around our own city. Beyond that, for thousands, it was, why pay, when you could get away with it?
Morals really had nothing to do with it.
All these and more, the many-headed schemes for just not paying your fare were costing London Underground millions.
In 1994 London Underground Ltd (LUL), having finally had enough of the cost of fare-dodging, introduced ‘penalty fares’. Under the London Regional transport (Penalty Fares) Act, anyone caught fare-dodging, travelling without ticket, or on the wrong ticket, by one of the Underground’s ticket inspectors, was to be fined £10 on the spot. (this was later increased to £20). Fare dodging on the bus was to be punished by £5.
LUL were relying on hiring extra ticket inspectors, operating sometimes in plain clothes, and relying on people’s fear of getting caught, not knowing when an inspector would get on the tube.
However, there were major loopholes in this system. Which many hardened faredodgers picked up on pretty quickly. And a small collective of troublemakers determined to publicise them, encourage faredodging and generally muck up the system…
The Fare Dodgers’ Liberation Front was created by a small group of communists and anarchists who lived in South London. A similar project, the Fare Dodgers’ Underground, sprang up in North London. We were tiny groups, not in any way representative of the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dodgers… and not trying to be; we were just provocateurs, agitating, stirring the pot…
FDLF propaganda pointed put some of the ways to avoid paying the penalty fares:
“A FEW THINGS YOU OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PENALTY FARES…”
Penalty fares are the latest attack by London Underground Ltd on its long-suffering passengers. Not only do they want to intimidate us into paying their outrageous fares, they want us to buy our tickets before the start of our journey as well! £10 is sod all for a business man but heart-breaking if you’re on the dole.
But don’t panic! The inspectors who are supposed to enforce this policy have almost no legal powers. They rely on bluff.
The most misleading aspect of the LU propaganda is the way it gives the impression that an inspector can make you pay a penalty fare. This is pure bullshit. The authority for introducing penalty fares comes from the London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Act 1992. The Act makes it clear that the only obligation on a person unwilling or unable to pay a fare on the spot is to provide a name and address. The inspector has no power to arrest you. They don’t even have the power to demand proof of identity! If an inspector refuses to let you out of the station this technically constitutes false imprisonment. In practice, you should be careful when you give a false name – inspectors have access to the regularly updates data base which seems mostly to rely on the electoral register. They will insist on checking out the name and address you give them, so it’s best to use one which actually exists.
If you dispute the reason for being given the fine you can give your name and your reasons to the inspector or in writing within 21 days. A valid reason is that there were no facilities available for buying a ticket at the start of the journey. Surely a ticket window with a long queue is not really ‘available’? Nor is a ticket machine that won’t give change. Maybe you lost your ticket. This is the sort of tack you might try if you want to argue with these prats. Even if you don’t give any reason at all (and assuming they’ve got you correct name and address) the only means LU have of enforcing the penalty fare is by means of a County Court Summons. In other words, collecting their £10 will be similar to collecting the poll tax – almost impossible if we refuse to cooperate!
If you enjoy ridiculous court cases (and have go nothing better to do) it might be worth you going to court – you’ll cost LU far more than £10. A more realistic approach is just to ignore the summons.”
We produced thousands of stickers, leaflets, news-sheets, which we spread around as much of the tube network as we could; including guides to how to fare dodge and good sound reasons why. We subvertised (before the word was invented?) hundreds of LUL’s posters trying to scare, shame or embarrass people into not dodging. It is still very easy to remove the rectangular tube ads, take ‘em home, alter them, then slip them back in. The Fare Dodgers’ Underground specialised in this… some sarky takes on LUL’s own anti-faredodging adverts celebrated fare dodging. Sadly only one pic of these has survived – we carried few cameras then, and it was before smart phones made snapping a pic and then slapping it on twitter the main way to record an action…!
Some of the best FDLF sticker ideas were thought up in the pub (usually Brixton’s Duke of Edinburgh, or the Landor in Clapham). We’d get pissed and chuck ideas for slogans around, and pretty silly it would get, sometimes… Some brilliant slogans for stickers came out of pints of Guinness though, eg ‘Why should others pay while we travel free?’ (a spoof on the anti-faredodging complaint ‘why should some people travel free while most pay their way’); ‘Stop the barbaric Trade in Live Commuters’ (referencing the campaign against live animal exports, then a massive issue)… ‘Can’t pay! Won’t Pay!’, and also ‘Can Pay! Won’t Pay!’…
Ticket-operated barriers, then spreading from a few stations in central London, gradually wider across the tube network, were the focus of our ire and creativity. A favourite FDLF sticker for sticking on barriers and ticket machines, read ‘General Ludd Says Smash this Machine!’ referencing the Luddites… old favourites from our early historical readings. Getting through without a ticket became a challenge. One of our posters claimed four people could get through the ticket machines in one go when they opened; which I think we tried but never quite managed! Two was easy, three possible… A few athletic souls like to vault over the gates, but this attracted attention, while slipping behind someone else could be done unobtrusively (sometimes the person you nipped behind didn’t even realise – though every now and again someone would turn round and get all busybody on you.)
We discovered and spread the word about the sensor low on the machine you can cover with your hand to make a gate stay open longer… also chewing gum could be used to jam up ticket machines…
Some of this can still be done… though it’s harder now, as then the gates weren’t everywhere, so you might only have to dodge through behind someone once on a journey.
The FDLF issued a set of ten transitional demands for the immediate improvement of travel on the tube network: unfortunately we can’t recall all of these… and much of our propaganda has been lost in various moves and clearouts! We can’t find the leaflet with the demands on… They did include:
- Free travel on all tubes, trains and buses all the time;
- Free toilets on all trains and tube station platforms;
- Reinstate the litter bins on stations (which had been removed a few years earlier after IRA bombs had been planted in bins);
As a fun way of getting the message out we decided to hold parties on the circle line, which for the uninitiated is what it says on the tin – a circular tube line where trains go round and round (thanks 999…) A great place for a moving shindig… On May 21st 1995, armed with balloon, booze, stickers and leaflets about 30 of us boarded a tube train and held a mini-festival, moving through the train, dancing and drinking, handing out stickers and freesheets… A big laugh in fact.
After the success of this party, we resolved to do it again, on 28 June the same year. Fewer people turned up.
This time, however, the party ended up in two arrests… News of the party obviously got to the transport cops, who tracked the partygoers down and swarmed the festivities. One FDLFer was arrested for carrying stickers meant to put be stuck everywhere on the tubes; the actual charge is lost in the mists of time but was something of the order of “Possessing advertising stickers with intent to something or other”. He was eventually fined…
The FDLF, as we said, was never at heart more than a few people. But it seized the imagination of many more… Our stickers got plastered all over the tube network; the Big issue came looking for an interview, which we decided to do, although our attitude to all media outlets was – and remains – ambiguous. They put us on the cover (not our faces, obviously, no pictures guv). I am still slightly uneasy about that bit, wondering how much we were just massaging our own egos in the guise of ‘getting the word out’… re-reading our answers to their questions a lot of its was bluster and trying to conceal that fact that there were like 5 of us… hmmm.
But the most hilarious aspect of the whole agitation indicated that what kind of impact we had had, if briefly. If you were caught faredodging but claimed to have no money to pay your fine on the spot, the inspectors, having no power to detain you, had to get you to fill out a yellow slip with your address on, the charge, and how much you were supposed to owe them, which they would then demand off you later by post. The ever-so-slightly-weak link in this was that you had no incentive to give a real name and address. They could however check the address did exist, so a real place was useful… The FDLF alerted anyone reading our propaganda to this, and we may (I forget) have suggested that people use a creative false name and our postal address – care of 121 Railton Road, the once-famous 121 anarchist squat in Brixton (some of us FDLFers were involved in helping run the building).
Cue the arrival at 121, over the next few years, by post of a deluge of yellow slips, filled out in a variety of interesting monikers, from cheery folk with no intention of ever paying their fines…
London Underground also attempted to shame faredodgers and intimidate them into paying, with a concerted campaign of posters on the tubes and stations and adverts. These mainly harped on the embarrassment of being caught and the criminal record you could get from arrest. Much of which was nonsense. We set about subverting this campaign, in particular the ads on the trains.
The Fare Dodgers Underground proved especially adept at this, producing a series of fine fare-dodging spoofs, nicking some LU tube adverts and converting them with pasted on stories either about fare avoidance, overcrowding or other stuff (depending on the background images etc) & then putting back on the tube. These penalty fare adverts were sometimes in the form of stories – e.g. there was one with a border made up of dummies and a slogan like ‘don’t be a dummy, pay your fare’, which was changed to something like ‘we’re squashed together like dummies and made to pay for the pleasure’.
The penalty for being caught dodging went up to £20 a few years later; largely because the £10 and the accompanying powers had not worked in the least.
Postscript: “Autistic wank for sad men and their acronyms’
While trying (mostly in vain) to collect info and reminiscences for this post, one correspondent active in our 1990s faredodging agitation wrote recently: “To be honest – although FDLF leaflet is good – in retrospect it all seems a bit of a wank for sad men and their acronyms. But nothing wrong with encouraging future wankers I guess :)”
The ex-FDLFer arrested on the second tube party also pondered on the real significance of our campaign: “Obvious self-criticism: Tube parties are a silly idea unless you’ve got the numbers not to be easily repressed! Always think about what you’re going to do if people get arrested. I could have got away with giving a false name if some idiot hadn’t… A more serious point is that it wasn’t part of any wider movement, it was really just some anarchos doing some pranks. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but we can’t really expect it to achieve very much.”
Both the points above re the real weight of our ‘campaign’ hold a lot of truth. We were tiny groups of politicos trying to tick our oar in, but the actual strength of fare-dodging lay in the fact that it was culturally a normal way of behaving, and for many, an economic necessity. At least we realised this, although, Class War-like, we tried for a laugh to inflate our numbers and pretend we were bigger and more organised than we were. This seemed fun at the time, and though it could be considered a bit pathetic if you stand back and compare our activities with the reality – so what? We said what a lot of people were thinking without pretending that we were ‘leading’ anything, or representing anybody. We kept it up for a while but drifted off to do other things when we got bored. All of us were also heavily involved in a myriad of (probably more significant) movements and struggles at the same time as the FLDF were active. As noted above – there was no evolution to a mass fare evasion resistance based on something beyond individual dodging, and if anything, London Underground eventually ground fare-dodging down – the penalty fares and the imposition of gates had a serious impact. Culturally, too, fare-dodging gradually became less openly acceptable, as it became more difficult to actually do. But a mass movement would have had to be constructed differently to reality; and minuscule groups of activists are not going to be the catalyst for that – or not on their own, at least. Fare-dodging was overwhelmingly in practice an individual act. A mass movement that could have reversed the LU crackdown would have had to be collective. Hard to cross that gap, though it can be done… At the same time, all sorts of social skivery and back alley survival techniques were being repressed as part of a long-term re-adjustment of UK social relations – basically eliminating many scams and loopholes, pushing back against a lot of the ways making a living between the cracks, or even better, avoiding work, evolved over time by millions of us. Making two dole claims, working on the side while signing on, co-habiting, squatting, etc, all was being more or less systematically squeezed. Resistance was sporadic, on a lot of these questions, as with fare-dodging. Many people accepted that scams were shortlived, loopholes bound to be closed, and moved on to new fiddles… Lots more could be written on this… Another time perhaps.
Since the 1990s the culture of London public travel has changed completely… via bendibuses (basically free if you used yer nouse), the introduction of oyster, the abolition of money fares (ie no ability to pay cash on the bus)… the new routemasters (also very dodgeable if you’re nifty). Fare-dodging on the tube still goes on – no stats, but in the last month I’ve observed young folk doing the old ‘dash through the gates behind someone’ trick several times. Which warms the cockles, as ever. Us old folk can nostalge but the needy are out there travelling for free. And will evolve their own methods…
PPS: An old FDLF stalwart writes: “An important point is that the use of personal payment cards for tube journeys (and other means of transport) has effectively decriminalised fare-dodging. If you manage to start a journey without tapping your card (no barriers, barriers open etc) and an inspector catches you then all you have to do is to show a valid debit/credit card – they have no right to accuse you of fraud or to impose a fine, all they can do is charge you an appropriate fare for your journey. In the same way, of course, Amazon Go technology decriminalises shoplifting, but that’s another story…”
Its worth noting that some places have given up collecting fares at all:
PS August 2019) – Latest Hong Kong protests show the FDLF has developed new tactics…