HSL Comes Under Fire for Ceasing Ticket Sales on Commuter Trains

At the Helsinki Railway Station in September. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Helsinki’s state-run public transportation authority HSL has been criticized for its decision to abandon ticket sales on commuter trains in the Helsinki region. Since the change, there has been a surge of criticism from unsatisfied and frustrated customers who feel that they have been treated unfairly by conductors and were not provided with adequate information about the transition.

One customer stated that as a casual commuter, he has felt intimidated and unsettled by the conductors’ brusqueness and an apparent over-inspection of tickets – every day without fail and sometimes even twice during a short journey. He also talks about witnessing unsuspecting commuters being ruthlessly asked to leave the train before their destination, and he is not the only one. Another customer claims he gets the impression that the conductors are not there to ensure the smooth-running of customers’ journeys but rather to patrol the trains with the primary concern of increasing company profits through inspection fees.

The decision to cease the ticket sales on HSL’s VR commuter train network as of June 19th this year was made with a view to encourage the purchase of mobile tickets via the HSL app, the continued use of travel cards and debit card payments made at ticket machines in advance of a journey in order to enhance efficiency and work towards achieving “the most effective commuter train service in Europe.”

This decision was deemed as the next logical step for HSL as the share of ticket sales on VR commuter trains is said to have dropped by a whopping 40 percent in 2016 compared with that of the previous year, and sales on HSL-area trains have also been steadily decreasing.

In addition to speeding up ticket sales, this reform has also served as an opportunity to optimize staff responsibility. Whereas conductors would have previously been expected to check and sell tickets in designated carriages, they are now responsible for patrolling the entirety of the train at frequent intervals (at peak hours as well as on evening and night time services) to “help and advise customers as well as increase their sense of safety” and presumably to prevent fare evasion.

Last month, a worried, scared and infuriated mother made a poignant account of VR’s new ticket policy in an opinion she wrote for Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat. Her 13-year-old son, who was journeying on his own for the first time, boarded a carriage on a commuter train from Helsinki to Hyvinkää, where there was no visible notice stating that tickets were no longer being sold on trains. He was approached by a ticket inspector who categorically told him that he would need to alight at the next station, buy a ticket from the ticket machine on the platform and continue his journey on the next available train from there. The fact that he only had cash with him and did not own a bank card required to carry out the transaction fell on deaf ears and he was made to leave the train regardless, where he would have been stranded in the cold had he not had just enough battery to make a phone call to get a lift home.

The fact that he only had cash with him and did not own a bank card required to carry out the transaction fell on deaf ears.

At the ticket machine. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

On an autumn afternoon at Helsinki’s bustling central station, it is not difficult to encounter someone with something to say about the recent developments. When asked what she thinks about HSL’s system changes, Helsinki native and university graduate Anastasia, 28, said, ”Why the trains need conductors is not very clear to me anymore – if they cannot sell tickets what is the service they are providing? They are doing the work of ticket inspectors without issuing fines.”

Project Manager Lisa, 24, who first came to Finland some years ago from Germany and now lives in Helsinki, commented on the inefficiency of the new ticket system:  “When friends are visiting from abroad, I have to remember that now we need to buy them a ticket in advance at the airport. Before, we just hopped on the first train and didn’t have to worry about that, which of course saved time.”

According to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the special needs of particular customer groups, for example, children, the elderly and tourists should be taken into account in relation to ticket accessibility, guidance and company practices. The ministry specified that “HSL must also instruct ticket inspectors to avoid imposing inspection fees or removing passengers from the means of transport in cases where ticket travel is clearly due to significant deficiencies in the organization of ticket sales.” The ministry also suggested that the current ticket sales network needs to be expanded sufficiently and ticket payment methods should be developed to cater for all potential customers. A deadline of September 30th has been stipulated by the ministry for HSL to report on the measures taken to implement the aforementioned adjustments.

“Why the trains need conductors is not very clear to me anymore.”

Waiting. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

IIida Huhtanen, the senior officer for legal affairs at the Ministry of Transport and Communications, said to Finland Today that in regard to enforcing penalty fares, (a legal right granted by the ministry on the grounds of an adequate ticket sales system) HSL “mostly fulfils the criteria required by law” but that VR must proceed with greater caution when charging penalty fares or removing passengers from trains and must also consider that “no penalty fare can be charged in situations where the absence of a valid ticket is clearly due to any shortcomings in the ticket sales system.” Furthermore, the ministry has left it up to HSL to “decide on the measures they are going to take to improve the situation.”

Janna Viisterä, a representative of VR’s communications, asserted that VR’s intentions to remove on-board ticket sales on commuter trains has been in the pipeline since 2014 and they feel that the transition was sufficiently advertised via a multitude of channels such as through train announcements, on their website and with various posters displayed in and around stations, trains and further afield. “The new operating model is of course still fresh, so it’s not yet something that everyone will be familiar with,” Viisterä said and added that VR is “constantly collecting feedback from [their] customers about the new model and making the necessary adjustments.”

With reference to the incident featured in Helsingin Sanomat involving the 13-year-old boy being removed from his train home, Viisterä said that “the train crew made a false assessment” and that with reference to VR’s code of conduct, they are only permitted to “remove those who clearly did not intend to buy a ticket and that the situation is to be judged as a whole, taking into account the age, time of day and other relevant circumstances of the passenger.” “We apologized and cleared up the incident with the parents of the boy,” Viisterä said.

We tried calling the mother to ask her to elaborate on the subject.

There was no answer.

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