/ Travel & Leisure

Complain for change: train company stopped in its tracks

The story of how my parents suffered at the hands of a train company is testament to the fact that complaining can get you somewhere. Has a complaint you made resulted in a positive change?

I think it’s fairly safe to presume that we’ve all had a frustrating experience with a delayed, overcrowded or overpriced (or all three!) train journey. I certainly have and I’ve often been disappointed by the way my subsequent complaints have been handled.

But a couple of weeks ago my parents called to tell me about the positive response they had had from ScotRail after they complained about an exhausting experience on a sleeper train to Fort William.

Since joining the Consumer Rights team here at Which?, I have become a magnet for friends and family ringing me up in outrage to tell me they’ve been the victim of a consumer rights injustice. So I have to say I was surprised to hear the words ‘positive response’.

No sleep on the sleeper train

My parents, both in their late 60s, are keen (non-lycra-wearing) cyclists and recently travelled up to the Scottish Highlands with their bikes for a long weekend of cycling.

They’ve taken the overnight sleeper train up to Scotland several times over the last 30 years and they enjoy the low-carbon comfort (sleeper cabins designed for two) and the stunning bedside views (glorious unspoilt Scottish countryside). The cost is steep, now nearly £200 per person one-way, but they think it’s worth it for the advertised ‘restfulness of sleeper travel’.

Put simply, they were proved wrong. At 3am, as the train approached Edinburgh Waverley, they were abruptly woken by an attendant banging on their door telling them that they had to move their bikes from the guard’s van. This is where they had been told to put them, as they had done on all previous journeys.

Their train was about to be coupled with another train and so they had to move their bikes to another guard’s van. Since this had never happened before, as you can imagine, my parents were extremely annoyed. They were told that this was a new policy and were left to wait until 4.38am, standing on a cold platform with their bikes, before they could move them to the new location and return to their compartment.

Repent for your mistakes

For a company that actively promotes travelling by train with bikes as ‘A Better Way to Go’, my parents were left feeling extremely cheated by ScotRail and wrote to them to tell them so.

However, they were impressed with the prompt and apologetic response they received and have been advised that a senior manager is investigating the incident with a view to imminently changing the policy.

With a bit of digging they have since learnt that the Scottish and English governments had already agreed to each put £50m into the development of the sleeper service. Presumably ScotRail’s bicycle and luggage policy will be reviewed as part of the tendering process, so they’ll be keen to get this right.

So there you have it – complaining can make a difference and some companies do sit up and take notice. Have you made a complaint that resulted in a company changing its ways?

Argus says:
20 July 2012

I’m not so sure that your parents particular case made a difference as the sleeper service has been heavily subsidised by the Scottish government for many years and a root and branch review was already underway.
The conduct of the porter however was unacceptable and maybe something is being done, but maybe not. I have been told many times by train companies that they are “investigating” when I have complained yet nothing ever changes.

I am quite a prolific complainer when it comes to goods and services and the only result I have ever achieved is a £15 voucher or a few quid off here and there. My opinion is that a customer can never influence a change in policy unless there is a fatality or injury.


Phil says:
21 July 2012

The only hope is that enough people complain to make the company realise that what they’re doing is not acceptable. If we don’t complain nothing will ever get changed.

JT says:
23 July 2012

Has anybody been caught out by the exorbitant costs of changing an East Coast rail ticket purchased on line? I bought 2 London-Edinburgh return rail tickets two weeks ago to cover a planned trip to see the Edinburgh Festival. However the day I after I booked them I realised that that the dates I had booked were after the Comedy Fringe Festival had finished so I called East Coast to enquire as to whether they could assist me in changing the dates of both the departure and return legs. I realised that if I changed my tickets I was likely to have to pay an admin fee but I was astonished to learn that rather than pay a flat fee to change the whole journey, I would have to pay a fee of GBP10 per ticket per leg. Therefore the total costs of changing my tickets and those of my travelling companion would be GBP40. I asked why the amendment fee was charged per person per leg seeing as the tickets were booked together as one package and the reason cited was the significant administration task and labour costs associated with the cancellation and reissue of each ticket. This I find hard to believe. When I lodged an official complaint, I received a letter from Network East saying that this fee structure is nationally agreed by all Train Operating Companies.
Is this correct? If so, how can such a levy per ticket rather than per booking be justified on the grounds of administration costs?

I believe that is a universal practice set forth in the National Conditions of Carriage in respect of the purchase of advance tickets on-line [and possibly also at a ticket office in advance]. It is nonetheless exhorbitant and disproportionate to the actual expense incurred – it is clearly a deterrence penalty with no basis in equity. The existence of such a standard condition, however, does not fetter a company from making a concession or using discretion and a decent train company would have charged you £5 to do the entire switch. East Coast, as a Department of Transport-owned train operator [with an interim holding contract pending retendering] has no reputation to protect and is impervious to customer disapproval.