/ Travel & Leisure

Does a rail voucher cut it when your train has been delayed?

Girl sat on suitcase waiting for train

National Rail’s conditions of carriage mean that if you run into trouble with your train journey your compensation will be in the form of National Rail vouchers. But is this a cop-out?

Now the trouble with train vouchers is that they tie you in to spending your ‘compensation’ on further train journeys – not always a pleasant prospect. I imagine those stuck on the First Great Western service for 11 hours earlier this month aren’t desperate to get back on a train any time soon.

These vouchers can only be redeemed in person at a ticket office, and have an expiry date. This means you have to go out of your way to buy your tickets, and if you don’t travel frequently, they’re not the most helpful method of refund.

Compensation for train delays

And it seems you agree. Which? Conversation commenter Rarrar says:

‘I have a reasonable amount of money in the form of National Rail vouchers received as compensation for late or cancelled trains. The only way I can redeem these is by buying tickets at a station ticket office, besides the cost and inconvenience of a 50 mile trip to do this at our local mainline station I can never be sure if the ticket office will be open or not.’

I recently had two train journeys where I was forced to buy a new ticket due to problems with the train I was meant to be travelling on. When I wrote to ask for a refund, I was promptly sent an apology and some National Rail vouchers. As the extra tickets had set me back nearly £100 – which I never intended to spend on train journeys – I was pretty miffed.

I wasn’t planning to travel again by train in the near future, and these unbudgeted-for expenses pushed me into overdraft territory, something a cash refund would go some way to fix.

Follow through with your complaint

We’re working to change the way we are compensated for problematic train journeys. We think you should be reimbursed in the manner in which you paid. Don’t you?

In the meantime, I’ve found that persistence can pay off. If you complain about receiving vouchers and ask for a refund instead (best of all, state this specifically when you put in your claim), some train companies may oblige. Be explicit about what you want, and why train vouchers don’t cut it, and you may be able to get your money back.

Are you happy with train vouchers when things go wrong? Have you had success challenging train companies on this?


When buying a train ticket you are entering ino a contract under the National Rail Conditions of Carriage which stipulate everything to do with tickets, journeys, refunds, compensation, etc. These Conditions are obviously unavoidable if you want to use the railway and probably, at the basic level, override all other forms of consumer redress, purchasing regulations, seller’s obligations and buyer’s rights. If the railway company gives you anything better than this it is no doubt entirely discretionary, non-contractual, and without any liability on their part. The Conditions make it very clear how compensation will be calculated and the form in which it will be given. The problem is that it is a very one-sided contract and is out-of-tune with best practice throughout the service sector. In its original sense, “compensation” is about putting you back in the position you would have been in if the problem had not occurred; with time being the essence of the contract that is obviouly not viable in its literal construction for a train journey so it would be right and proper for the customer to be able to specify – within reason – what they feel entitled to and the form in which it should be provided. Indeed, given that time is the essence of the contract on a dated railway ticket, giving only rail vouchers could be argued to be a lack of compensation in some circumstances so the customer’s requirements should prevail. I don’t recommend anyone to take this to a court of law, however, unless very deep pockets are available but I think it is high time the Rail Regulator took a look at it. We should not overlook the way in which the whole concept of late-running is loaded in favour of the train companies since an arrival at the destination station within ten minutes – for a long-distance journey [five minutes otherwise] – of the advertised time is still counted as “on time”, and in many ases the timetables are padded with extra minutes towards the end of the journey to recover from earlier delays This is how they achieve “punctuality” figures of 90% or more. That’s compensation!

When I was an annual season ticket holder on Southern I used to accumulate sheaves of vouchers for a few quid a time: you can claim for delays of longer than 30 minutes, and given Southern’s predilection to run trains fast through certain stations (the Redhill line is notorious for it) ‘to make up time’ this happens often. You used to have to save them up and use them when you wanted to go somewhere other than London. More often than not they got put on one side and rediscovered after they’d expired.

Thankfully they’ve changed the rules now and you can swap them for cash.

Morag says:
24 August 2013

ScotRail refused to accept my disabled daughter’s concession card and made her pay full price for part of her journey that should have been a £1 flat fare. They had her in tears telling her the card was only for blind people. I spoke to their Customer Relations who agreed she had been wrongly and badly treated but when I sent off the tickets and proof of concession as requested they never got back to me.

I agree rail vouchers can’t be transferred or sold and they expire, if travel companies were obliged to refund in cash/card refund it might well prompt them to provide a better level of service. I also find the process of applying for compensation difficult especially as modern ticket machines take your ticket at the end of a journey forcing you to wait for a guard to release you. I also the National Rail Conditions of carriage and penalty fares punitive. In one instance I saw a passenger being charged a penalty fare because she boarded a station early despite the ticket price being the same for both stations. It is inflexible and criminalises a civil matter.

Gerard Phelan says:
25 August 2013

A friend asked me to use her rail voucher (received for delays) because she rarely travelled by rail. Trouble is that most of my journeys are short ones as well. The first time I could have used it, the best deal was for Advance tickets and the ticket office said it was too complex for them to sell and directed me to buy them on-line, which I did, but could not use the voucher.
It was three months before the voucher expired when I went on another long journey, this time where it suited me to buy the simpler off-peak return at the local ticket office and could use the voucher and finally refund my friend.

Given the continuing trend to encourage passengers to buy tickets on-line or from machines the issue of compensation vouchers that must be redeemed at a manned ticket office reflects an antiquated approach to customer relations.

Howard Fisher says:
25 August 2013

It’s not only the inflexibility of compensation by voucher that’s a problem, but the confusion of different levels of compensation threshold. WeekIy for over 5 years, I travel a journey on one Advance ticket that covers First Great Western, South West Trains and East Coast, with the East Coast part of the journey having to be on a specific train. It is by no means clear which company’s rules (yes, they’re all different) apply to a delay – the companies’ “customer service” phone lines don’t even agree. In addition, there can be issues arguing with guards on the East Coast journey when the delay was on the FGW line – which not infrequently chooses to turn trains round early when they’re late, not even turning up at my station. Plus, SWT seems to delight in rejecting valid claims for compensation – on several occasions it’s taken quite an exchange of correspondence before they actually bother to read my reasons for the claim and don’t simply reject it for spurious reasons. And yes, when they do compensate me, it’s by a voucher I can’t use at my local unmanned station or online, and as that’s quite an expensive journey the vouchers exceed the cost of buying local tickets which are the only ones I don’t buy online.

I recently claimed back for a delayed journey with Southeastern. My train has been cancelled, the next one not leaving for 30 minutes (which was then delayed by 10 minutes as well).

I went through the complicated process to claim my refund, only to receive a notice saying that my train hadn’t been cancelled and that it left on time. I wasn’t impressed! I had to call and explain the whole situation again, and ask them to re-evaluate my claim.

Finally, they agreed I’d been delayed, and sent me rail vouchers to the value of £6 as compensation. But I have an annual season ticket to London, which means that I never have need to buy rail tickets with Southeastern. Predictably – my compensation voucher has now expired, unused.

If your plane is delayed by more than three hours, you are entitled to up to €600 compensation. Wouldn’t it be nice if this rule also applied to trains?

Compensation must be paid for, so greater compensation means higher fares. Be careful what you wish for. 🙂

The claims I have made for delay from Virgin and Trans-Penine were simple to do and the vouchers arrived several days later without any hassle.

The only reasons for paying compensation by vouchers that expire and are restricted in how they can be used is to minimise the cost of providing compensation. It is not good enough, and it is hardly a good way of achieving customer satisfaction.

It might instill a sense of customer satisfaction in the mindsets of the railway companies if their behaviour was taken into account when their franchises come up for renewal. Since the lowest bidder wins there is very little incentive to value the more intangible aspects of the rail travel experience.

Ideally, delays would not occur. There have been appalling delays recently on the lines from London Kings Cross out to Peterborough and Cambridge after “over-running engineering work” during the late summer bank holiday. First Capital Connect [a train operator, not a telephone exchange] has felt obliged to offer refunds ad lib regardless of the duration of passengers’ delays such was the disruption to people’s journeys; this is an honourable act although the delay was attributable to a Network Rail operation. FCC will be reimbursed by NR, the passengers who claim will get some vouchers, and a box will be ticked to say it’s all done and dusted. And heads will roll . . . well, no actually. Real money refunds and penalties for poor performance are the only things that might bring about change. But as Wavechange warns, since compensation comes out of the fare box – and not the directors’ bonuses or the shareholders’ dividends – we must be very careful what we ask for.

Anne Smith says:
9 October 2014

I don’t really object to receiving rail vouchers in principal. After all, if you complain to Sainsburys, what do you get? A credit note for Sainsburys.
What I do object to is the fact that It is almost impossible to use the vouchers. The rail companies very much want us to book online so any credit which they give should be either credited directly back to the card used to purchase or, failing that, should be useable, maybe as a code, when purchasing online and at the ticket machines.
I have several vouchers, some of which I have now had over 10 months but our nearest manned ticket office is a 35 mile round journey. It ends up being cheaper to throw them in the bin than to use them.

Andrew Mason says:
11 October 2014

Rail vouchers are provided because the service which was paid for was woefully inadequate (you don’t get anything in most cases for less than an hour’s delay, regardless of the initial duration of the journey). What’s wrong with getting a refund in the same form in which you paid? In most cases that’ll be a refund directly to the card you paid with.

The whole drive of the rail industry for at least five years has been a) to make purchasing anything other than advance tickets punitively expensive, and b) to book tickets online. Providing a system where a voucher which runs out after a year (and you lose the difference between the voucher value and any cheaper ticket you want to buy) is not the same as a proper refund. Making it more difficult to actually buy tickets as well by not allowing online purchases is grossly unfair. Why not put codes on the tickets which can be used online? Most other industries do this – it’s not a difficult concept..

It feels like another way of ticking the box of ‘yes, we do customer service’ while making it as difficult as practically possible for customers to actually get their refunds. Maybe if we went back to being ‘passengers’ instead of ‘customers’ we could get back to a focus on actually getting us to our destinations as planned..

Peter Tormey says:
18 October 2014

Like everyone else commenting here I have a collection of vouchers but find it very difficult to use them. My local train station has a ticket office but it is frequently closed due to lack of staff, at least that is what the hand written sign says. No change given when a voucher is used, not even as a lesser value voucher. Is this another way of fining the passenger. Vouchers must be able to be used for online purchases. The train companies will not do this voluntarily so the regulator should make them.

MikeW says:
31 December 2014

I have a £12 voucher which is about to expire. I went on line (national rail) to see what was available. I chose a first class return for £44 (singles can be over £120 second class!). I decided to print it out, take it to my local station and use my voucher.
They could not get anywhere near the same price or route!
Option: send the vouchers to Virgin. Same route, same Virgin train, same everything, but £13 more expensive. So using the voucher will prove more expensive than binning it -> what wonderful compensation!

MikeW says:
31 December 2014

Sorry the £120 was for a first class single, the £44 return was two £22 first class singles.
I bought the £44 return via National Rail website forwarded to Virgin. Why could neither Virgin Rail or my local station not access the same fare?

Go to the ORR “office of rail regulation” and search for “rail travel vouchers” and you will be greeted with…. nothing found…speaks volumes.

In my limited experienceVirgin do offer “online only” tickets sometimes – usually when there arewnt any Advanced tickets left.
Fully agree vouchers are a waste of time , the cost of driving to a station hoping the ticket office will be open just to spend them is not worth it.
However my experience in claiming for delays has been very good – easy to apply and quick response.

Andy says:
16 March 2015

I think the issue is that this is not about refunding your original expense but compensating you for inconvenience. Theoretically that would mean that you could claim compensation for being delayed and also (if the sale of goods act applies to train tickets) demand a full refund if the delay meant that your journey was not fit for purpose (ie if you missed the meeting that was the purpose of the journey).
Would the train operator have to pay up twice?
I wonder if anyone has tried it?

Stuart says:
21 March 2015

I recently received National Rail Vouchers worth just over £53 as compensation for massive delays on a journey on East Coast (now sadly reprivatised, but that’s another story) the day before NYE, and hope to use them for a planned trip to London over Palm Sunday weekend.

It says on the National Rail website that if the value of the ticket is less than the value of the voucher then the difference cannot be refunded as change.

What it doesn’t say is whether that merely means change in cash or change in general; ie would I be able to receive change in a voucher worth the difference? The analogy I am thinking of is book tokens: if you received a book token worth £20 as a present, and bought a book worth £15, generally the bookshop would give you a book token worth £5 rather than £5 in cash, which is fair enough, because they want you to come back and buy another book, not go across the road and buy a pint. But would the ticket office at the train station do that, or just smirk and say tough cookie? I will ring them tomorrow and ask, but does anyone here actually know the answer?

Afternoon Stuart, thanks for your post. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some problems and I don’t think the ticket office would offer change, either in cash or in vouchers.

Our best advice would be to spend the rest, and some money as well, on a railcard to go with your ticket. This might be a good way to make the vouchers go further. Alternatively, you can use them for a first class ticket instead of a standard one. Otherwise you’ll lose the left over amount.

Please also bear in mind that there’s engineering work going on all over the place on Easter Weekend – it’s not a good time to travel by train, especially on the West Coast mainline, London to Glasgow.