/ Travel & Leisure

Ever had a rail complaint handled effectively? Me neither…

Today, we’ve revealed that train companies are failing to deal with passenger complaints effectively or sometimes even politely. Given my own experiences, this doesn’t come as a surprise at all.

Between April 2017 to March 2018 there were as many as 500,000 complaints about rail services, and fewer than half of passengers were satisfied with how those complaints were dealt with.

In fact, we’ve found that passengers may not feel that their complaints were handled politely, let alone in a satisfactory way. No surprises here – this is exactly how I felt when I submitted a formal complaint to Southern.

Vent your #TrainPain and demand a better service

Completely ignored

Did you know that first class is permanently declassified on Southern metro services?

Despite the units being marked up with warnings about fines, anyone can sit in a first class compartment and first class tickets are not sold for trains operating on ‘metro’ lines.

This doesn’t sound like much to complain about, but it was clear that not nearly enough people were aware of this positive policy.

I would regularly see elderly passengers and other more vulnerable people standing on packed services, even though ‘first class’ seats were available (and yes, I did try to tell people as often as I could).

When I wrote to Southern about the lack of awareness and asked if it could be promoted at stations, I was completely ignored. It was as if the company hadn’t read my complaint at all, instead sending me back a generic response about industrial action.

I was so disappointed at how my enquiry had been handled that I raised it with London Travel Watch. I later received a response that actually matched my queries, but nothing was ever done to boost awareness.

No more fobbing off

There are of course, many more serious matters for passengers to complain about than my slightly different gripe.

We’ve covered disabled access here on Which? Conversation, while communication during disruption and compensation problems are of the utmost importance for passengers. It’s not acceptable that serious matters are being dealt with so poorly.

This is why the incoming independent rail ombudsman is much-needed. It should incentivise train companies to listen to passengers in the first place and, when necessary, step in to make sure passengers get the redress they deserve.

Have you ever submitted a formal complaint to a train company? If so, how do you feel it was dealt with? Was any action taken? I’d be interested to hear your stories.


Though not strictly about reporting complaints, it would seem that this discourtesy and the lack of response has to do with the general state of the railway and it is part of a system that can not cope with the demands placed upon it. Thus you have many more complaints about a multitude of problems and a lack of “response capability” to deal with these. Flood any complaint department with moans and groans and eventually that department will give up trying to answer them, particularly as they have no answers and probably couldn’t either prevent the problems or stop them happening again. The rail complaints department is the place where all the inefficiencies come to roost. They are probably under staffed and have more than enough work dealing with compensation claims from delays and cancellations. We might be quite justified in highlighting the many occasions when things have gone wrong and when the rail companies should have given us more information but until the rail transport system can provide the service we need, it is probably unfair to blame any single part of it. Rudeness is a symptom but is inexcusable what ever the stress.

I don’t think our railways have yet come to terms with being included within the scope of the Consumer Rights Act. They were a law unto themselves for a century and a half and have still not got used to the idea that, first and foremost, they must put customers first. They have no fear of the watchdogs. They are carrying about twice the number of passengers as before privatisation on virtually the same networks and fleet so they must have seen big revenue increases which should be used to pay for improved customer service. To some extent the Department for Transport have some responsibility for this; they have been pushing up the premiums payable to the government for the operating franchises meaning that in practice there is little extra money available to spend on better complaints handling, compensation, and other front-line duties.

“Completely agree, John. I’ve never felt like the service is being run for the passengers.”

Elementary economics – a business is run to make a profit for the owners – if it can.

Which?CA repeatedly pushes the line businesses are run for consumers/passengers etc. which I think fails the public badly in being an unrealistic and untenable view.

Yes they are badly run etc etc. Faffing around the edges about compensation claims and more and more articles actually is not going to solve the problem or indeed educate readers on possible solutions.

So please Which?/CA publish a serious article or do one with directions to weighty papers on possible solutions such as unifying the network. I grow weary of reading problems, providing links to learned papers, and then seeing the same messages recycled. We need action on solutions.

The Dutch consumer body the Consumentenbond provides an on-line forum for complaints to be dealt with by Dutch companies. This has been going for some years. I think it would be a major step forward in quantifying complaints against companies and their response rates and times.

As a 79-year old man unable to walk fast, I made a formal complaint to the train company running Milton Keynes Central station after I was not allowed to go through the barrier until about 5 minutes before the train departure time in order to get down the stairs to the platform and sit in the waiting room. I was forced to stand in a cold and crowded entrance area. The complaint was not upheld, because I held an “advance” ticket, and I was told that too many passengers tried to use an earlier train which they were not entitled to use.

Robert McLeish says:
14 November 2018

A journey from Wareham in Dorset to Derby was considerably delayed.
We complained about this and received an apology together with vouchers for the full fare.
No problems and very well dealt with.

This was when the franchise was held by Southwest Trains, but the journey also involved Cross Country trains.
The local company is now changed to South Western Railway and we have not had experience of claims so far.

A lot depends on who you have made your complaint to. Station staff have little ability and latitude to help regardless of how helpful they want to be and some try really hard. So that leaves the complaints forms on the websites. I have made a few but one I really remember. I usually travel off-peak for health reasons and agreed with work. The service had been a disaster that day with trains early going south and not coming back up the line so southbound later services seriously delayed or non-existent. I complained about 3 cancelled trains and got a refund of 1/2 my ticket price but with a letter telling me basically that all peak trains had ran properly and off-peak customers didn’t matter. That is not good enough – no train service is cheap and if you offer and sell a service, that service should be there regardless of time of day. Off-peak is not the same as second rate or shouldn’t be. The other time was when they cancelled all the night trains between midnight and 4am with no rail replacement. That time I tweeted and Facebooked about risk to customer safety of life. They eventually decided to run a service due to run from St Pancras back to Blackfriars before heading north but a lot of worry about being stranded in London for 5 hours at night with nowhere safe to be and no station guidance as last minute issue. You really get the feeling they don’t care – why should they, they have your money often a year in advance? You don’t matter – you don’t like it, what are you going to do? Cars are too expensive to take into London, buses take too long so they can walk all over you and no one cares. It costs London businesses a fortune daily and not great for mental health.

James D. French says:
14 November 2018

Why bother with HS2when the rest of the system is the laughing stock of Europe and most other countries. Can anyone get a journey on rail that is to time, clean,not cancelled, and got enough seats. My wife had tickets for seats, the carriage not on. On her return same again. What’s the point, only the rich will be able to afford HS2. They go by chopper or flash car. Then save 20min on HS2 then take 2hours getting through traffic to your office or meeting.

Good point, James. Would you have preferred if the money for HS2 had been divided around the rest of the rail system?

It’s a matter of capacity rather than speed. There is a need for an extra two tracks bewteen london and the major cities of the Midlands and the North and the least disruptive way to provide them is with a dedicated new line. It didn’t have to be a high speed line of course but it would be daft not to make it as modern as possible.

I monitored all my journeys for almost 9 months to July 2018 and then sued Northern Rail under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 enhanced for rail in 2016 for failure to deliver the service I had paid for as 71% of my journeys were late with the average delay approaching 12 minutes

They failed to respond to all court documents citing I had used an incorrect address ( which was provided by the ex Minister for Rail) and when contact was made post CCJ, also blamed Network Rail and the replacement bus company, rather than taking responsibility, but ultimately they paid up for the entire claim less some compensation they announced after my initial Small Court Claim was raised

This Act requires far stronger publicity to allow disgruntled passengers a tool to take these companies to task for poor performance and whilst it requires a level of tenacity to keep on top of and the payment of upfront fees at different stages, the result ultimately justified the effort with all expended fees refunded in the settlement

Don’t stand for poor service that ultimately costs £1000’s each year in season ticket costs. There is a solution outside of Delay Repay and it works!

Shaun Ankers says:
15 November 2018

I had an accident where the train doors closed on me just as I was getting on the train. I was trapped between the door frame and the door. I was unable to free myself. Eventually the guard, who closed the door, opened the door and freed me. We were the first people to get on the train when the guard decided to close the door without checking if anyone was getting on or not. He didn’t tell the passengers on the platform not to get on the train hence me getting on when I did. My son, who was 5 years old at the time, got on the train before me so he was trapped on the train while I was stuck in the doors. The guard never asked if I was OK or not, he just went on with his duties. I complained but was told that the guard followed the correct procedures and that he asked after my welfare. I replied that the procedures need to be changed to avoid this happening again and that I didn’t appreciate being called a liar re the guard not asking about my welfare. I received no response to my response. On a train journey a few months later I got chatting to the relief train driver of that train about my accident and he said that such accidents happen more often than you’d think. Luckily I only had a few aches and pains for a few days after the accident but if the door had closed on my son he would have been seriously injured or even killed. Needless to say I didn’t receive any compensation or even an apology.

I am an occasional rail traveller and avoid peak times, which may be why I don’t have problems. What disappoints me is the high cost of rail travel. No doubt this is partly because of the cost of paying compensation to those who are unfortunate enough to suffer problems with delays and cancellations.

Possibly so, Wavechange but most of the delays are attributable to Network Rail and there is not a direct link between NR’s expenditure and rail fares. There is an indirect connection however: although NR gets a substantial direct government grant, the train operating companies [both passenger and freight] have to pay track access charges to Network Rail as approved by the Regulator [Office of Rail and Road], so any increase in NR’s costs in paying compensation to the train companies will to some degree be reflected in the track access charges and by a circuitous route will feed into fares.

As an occasional user, I have not investigated what my fare funds, John, but I would be interested to know how much goes to fund compensation and its provision. George and many others should not have to pay for a substandard service, but what can be done to improve rail services and therefore cut down on compensation?

An element of the fare provided to the train operating company will be used to compensate passengers and make alternative arrangements for delays and cancellations attributable to themselves. Nobody should have to pay for a substandard service and the delay-repay policy is designed to incentivise the train companies and Network Rail to avoid the liability of passenger compensation and making alternative travel arrangements. That some of it goes back into the fare and is not wholly deducted from profits is an unfortunate consequence, but some train operating companies rely on state subsidies which introduces another dimension.

Because regulated fares are capped [which includes season tickets and certain other types of ticket valid during the peaks] the impact of the cost of compensation and its administration, plus the cost of alternative arrangements, can fall more heavily on the off-peak and occasional traveller like you and me.

A lot can be done to improve rail services within the existing network capacity and some of it is happening. These range from junction improvements [flyovers or dive-unders to eliminate conflicting movements], more reliable rolling stock and additional capacity to reduce dwell times at stations, digitisation of the signalling system to enable integrated traffic management and train control, improved staffing levels to enable better rostering and deployment, an improvement in industrial relations, and better direction of the franchising process to promote passenger benefits over operational considerations. Some of these chickens might lay more eggs than others.

In general I would not advocate anything that restrained demand [such as higher fares in peak periods or for certain journeys] even though rising demand has been one of the railway’s biggest headaches over recent years. However, as we have often commented before, the strategic relocation of workplaces could make a major contribution to relieving pressure on all modes of transport, although I suspect that the railways would continue to perform at a natural saturation level as the choice of mode was redistributed.

I submitted a claim to the once excellent Chiltern Railways. I was unable to download an e-Ticket on my phone. The clearly labelled “Chiltern Railways” app told me that the server was currently unavailable and I should try later. In the end I had to buy new tickets at the station so I need a refund for the original tickets. I haven’t yet received an acknowledgement of my claim, let alone a refund.

I have subsequently noticed that there is a new Chiltern app which has a nondescript “C” design. Maybe I should have used this app. Did it not occur to anybody at Chiltern or Arriva that it might be a good idea to update the old app so that it told users to get the new app? Better still, just update the old app so it works.

David Stuart says:
30 November 2018

I sent a claim form (given to me by the helpful booking office clerk at Aylesbury Town) about 2 years ago into Chiltern for a cancelled service and never got a reply! As I could only claim 50% 0f £8.00 I didn’t pursue it but my opinion of Chiltern took a nosedive!

I complained to TransPennine Express about their decision to close Garforth station on the Middlesbrough to Manchester line. Like you, my first reply was just a generic response which didn’t relate to anything in my complaint. A while later they send a ‘satisfaction’ email (rate their response) I filled this in and stated how I was disgusted just to receive this, probably, automated response. The next complaint brought a more relevant reply but nothing to suggest that the rail company was actually listening to a customer.
I think this is the main problem – many of my friends just won’t bother which is a shame for everyone because in the end the rail companies need to have happy customers therefore they need to listen to us

I agree with your perception, George. In my view it is an intolerable and offensive practice by a state-supported public utility. Hopefully Which? will take some action against the company now it has some solid evidence from Vera of its behaviour. The closure of railway stations is a vital consumer issue for those affected

I have had to stand most of the way from London to Portsmouth despite having a first-class (!) ticket.

I was offered sympathy…

Every year when the rail companies put up the train prices they pricing out families when they want leisure travel by train and when travel at weekends you are expecting to pay huge amounts of money to pay for a family of four and this is unfair of the train companies and the government I say bring back British rail all is forgiven get rid of the private companies and have British rail run the railways

Wendy Edmonds says:
30 November 2018

Since the network changed to South Western railway there are constant delays and cancellations on the lines through to Waterloo via Richmond. The service has noticeably deteriated and it’s very frustrating as you can’t rely on the timetable any more.
We need something done immediately

Anthony Postin says:
30 November 2018

They keep putting the price up,now 3.1%,for no better service.I like many enjoy train travel but the cost,no.no,no,.Government(who ever is in power)must say no more rises for a certain time.

What I cannot understand is how the railways manage to defy the ordinary laws of economics. You would expect that the more fare-paying passengers they carry within more-or-less the same capacity [and the growth has been phenomenal] the unit costs would reduce and profits increase, but the opposite seems to be true.

They bang on about all the new trains and carriages on order but that is leading to a massive surplus of displaced rolling stock with decades of life left in it. Trains are not universally interchangeable: some can only run on certain lines because of gauge differences, and electric trains can only run on electrified track [and it has to be the right form of electrification as well]. Nobody is in overall charge of ensuring there is a rational strategy, To some extent this is the cause of the economic inefficiency that ultimately means that fares have to be higher than they should be.

Neil Barton says:
1 December 2018

The railway companies have us all by the throat if you have to travel,using rail services to get to & from work.
It wouldn’t surprise me if one or two companies in London,and other large cities, are contemplating/considering the idea of relocating their operations where traveling to work via the rail network is minimal. I’m sure the that when the law of diminishing returns begins to bite and the vast armies of long suffering commuters are down to just a trickle??? What then? It;s not a fantasy on my part,it could and should start to happen,even on the excuses of REDUCING POLLUTION,stress etc.

Phil B says:
18 November 2019

The comments here are interesting – I thought my treatment by Transpennine Express recently was unusual but now I see it is common.. When I complained about 3 out of 4 ticket machines being out of use one afternoon at Huddersfield Station, I was informed that no such thing had happened! When I complained further that this was untrue I was told that although it had not been the reply I had wanted, there was nothing more to discuss!
Such arrogance and blame avoidance! British Rail (and British Railways before that) had a poor reputation for answering complaints and it was thought that those organisations, being a public service, did not understand the methods of commercial businesses when dealing with complaining customers. The current situation sees commercial companies who have very little understanding of the concept of public service with their endless delays, cancellations and overcrowding yet still do not grasp the concept of good customer care!