Melissa Barbaro: "If you know there is going to be someone out there checking your tickets, you will probably get a ticket all the time". Photo: Ken Robertson
Fare evaders are having a field day on Sydney's trains, with the number of free-riders being caught out plummeting by more than half since the O'Farrell government started to get rid of transit officers.
In the first six months of the year, about 22,000 fare evasion tickets were issued to rail passengers in Sydney. This compares to about 63,700 fines issued in the first half of 2011, according to the Office of State Revenue.
The drop in the number of people being fined for dodging fares started almost immediately after the government announced the closure of RailCorp's transit officer division in February last year, before its replacement by police and a smaller division of ticket checkers.
Before the closure, more than 10,000 fines a month were being issued across the train network. After the closure, that figure dropped to about 3000 a month.
The number of fines started to rise in May this year as the government hired more police and ticket checkers, but at 6000 a month it sits well below earlier highs.
When it announced the closure of the 600-strong transit officer division, whose members were responsible for security and fare evasion, the government said it would increase the 300 in Police Transport Command to 610, and deploy them across trains, buses and ferries. They would be supplemented by 150 ''transport officers'' working across all public transport.
Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian said she had ''no doubt'' Police Transport Command had helped improve safety. ''[It has] conducted more than 100 operations and made thousands of arrests for crimes including murder, stealing and assault - something transit officers could never have done,'' she said. ''Since the introduction of the first of the new transport officers in March, the number of fare evasion fines has increased and I expect this trend to continue as all 150 come on board over the coming months.''
The opposition doubted the effectiveness of the government's actions. ''It is the cut to transit officers and the understaffed Police Transport Command that is letting fare evaders off the hook,'' Labor transport spokeswoman Penny Sharpe said. ''There are simply not enough people patrolling trains, buses and ferries to make a dent in fare evasion.''
Commuters at western Sydney train stations said the lack of transit officers and ticket barriers made fare evasion easier.
At Merrylands station, Melissa Barbaro said the mere presence of guards would hit fare evasion. ''If you know there is going to be someone out there checking your tickets, you will probably get a ticket all the time,'' she said.