/ Travel & Leisure

Is this the new great train robbery?

The way the rail compensation system works is in my view designed to short-change travellers. Unfair refund policies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting compensation from train companies.

Last April my colleague Richard Dilks complained that the rail compensation system is too complex. I’d go further – it’s unfairly loaded in the train companies’ favour in a variety of ways. Ronnie Biggs would be proud of the scale of rail companies’ daylight robbery.

Every time I take a long distance train, something goes wrong. No really – trains (along with photocopiers, cats and bank staff) really don’t seem to like me.

The trial of getting compensation

Last weekend I was heading up to Lincolnshire for my mum’s birthday. A train somewhere ahead of us broke down and I finally arrived in Grimsby over two hours late.

As usual, I filled in an East Coast compensation form. (You can use the free Which? train delay tool to find out who to contact and how much you’re entitled to).

As I was more than two hours late, I was entitled to compensation of ‘100% of the cost of a single ticket or 100% of the cost of a return ticket’.

However, the East Coast claim form states that ‘when you purchase two separate advance single tickets to make a round trip, these do not constitute a return ticket’. So I only got one way refunded, even though I had bought both tickets at the same time. Anyone with a return ticket would get both journeys refunded.

An out-of-date refund system

If I want to take advantage of the train company’s system of releasing advance tickets at a cheaper price, I have to accept that I’ll fall foul of the archaic compensation structure if things go wrong.

Here’s an example. A super off-peak return from London to Grimsby costs £82. An anytime return costs a whopping £216. Buy two singles, however, and you can travel for as little as £11.55 each way. Of course, I always choose the cheaper option.

But when things (inevitably) go wrong, I only get a single ticket refund. If I wanted to reclaim the price of a return ticket, I would have had to pay almost four times the price in the first place. Hardly fair, surely. And East Coast has no excuse – it has been government-run since the franchise-holder National Express walked away from the route in 2009.

What am I meant to do with these vouchers?

The second stage of the trick comes in the form of the paper vouchers that train companies send you in compensation.

The cheapest advance fares from East Coast are to be found on the internet, but you can’t use the compensation vouchers online. I’m either left with vouchers I can’t use on the route I want to take, or I’m forced to pay over the odds at the station for my next ticket.

Either way, I think it’s sharp practice and shows a mocking contempt for rail passengers who have already been inconvenienced by the train companies’ inability to run an efficient service.

Have you been caught out by train companies’ charging and refund structure? And what would you do to reform the way rail refunds are carried out?


I entirely support your complaint about the refund policy in respect of advance tickets and for an additional reason. Advance tickets are train-specific and if the outward leg of the trip is badly disrupted then it might make it impossible to use the return ticket on the specified train. Railway companies have tied advance tickets up with so many strings and restrictions that they are definitely not consumer-friendly. I remember once when travelling home from Harrogate – changing at York, Peterborough, Ely and Norwich – the East Coast services were badly disrupted and we were extremely anxious that our specific trains and seats would be unavailable [as turned out to be the case]. We were told to board the next departure from York which although leaving later than our booked train was an earlier timed train [if that makes any sense] and throw ourselves on the mercy of the conductor. The onward journey was fraught with worry that we would be penalised for being in the wrong seats on the wrong train and that our off-peak fares would not be honoured. Luckily the train was heaving with luggage filling every nook and cranny so the conductor never made it to our carriage and we managed to get off at Peterborough without challenge. On the next three trains the conductors were not in the least concerned over which train we were on and whether we sat here or there, off-peak or otherwise. So is it just East Coast Railway that treats its passengers with such disdain?
As to the usefulness of the refund voucher I again agree with you. Leaving aside the question of whether a voucher [ratyher than a money refund] is an appropriate form of recompense, surely the whole essence of “compensation” is that it puts you back in the position you were in before the service failure occurred, so if you made the initial booking on-line then you should be enabled to make a replacement booking on-line. After all, if your journey was a special one to attend a funeral which you missed because of the train delays, its not a trip you’re going to want to make again [and you might never wish to use that rail network ever again]. I ended up with a voucher to use a midlands railway company that [a] no longer exists because the franchise ended, and [b] does not go anywhere I need to travel to in future.
Incidentally, has anyone ever seen the Railway Conditions of Carriage? You cannot complete an on-line booking without ticking a box to say you’ve read, marked, learned and inwardly understood said Conditions. I have heard that they run to around 800 pages and that nobody on the railway system knows more than a fragment of their terms. Good book to hide behind, though, if you’re a train company.

Thanks for alerting me to the Which? train delay tool. I’ve only recently taken to using trains, for various reasons. Having discovered some of the complexities of ticket pricing it is no surprise that compensation is not a simple matter.

It might be fun to find out if employees of the train companies are conversant with the Railway Conditions of Carriage. If not, perhaps a simpler version might be in order.

Helen Caves says:
29 September 2013

I agree. My son bought a ticket online with Cross Country. He didn’t check he had all the tickets from the station vending machine, although to be fair, we did hang around to check no more tickets were being expelled. On his return journey he could not produce the ticket for the inspector (only the seat booking) and so was asked to pay full price. On returning to the station they had his unused ticket. Cross Country website does not give details of claiming a refund; you have to have an account which my son did not have or phone a premium line (10p a minute). To get the details, my husband had to log in under his account which gave no more information. On phoning we were put on hold and finally given an address to write to. Why could this address not be put onto their main web site for everyone to see?

We were then told that there would be an admin charge of £10 and could we send it registered post? By the time you have paid these charges plus the cost of the call, it is hardly worth it. The website states we do not need a reason to apply for a refund but the operator said in writing we had to explain the need for a refund. Surely (considering the charges) no reason other than the ticket was unused is enough. We made a formal complaint regarding the lack of details (response awaited) and we are yet to make the written application, so we keep our fingers crossed.

I began to think that this was an unfair contract and should be considered by the Office of Fair Trading.

Single advance tickets are non refundable. I paid London to Derby to visit a friend in jail but the jail have cancelled the visit and I can’t get any refund at all. I don’t know how they get away with this.