/ Travel & Leisure

Can we get the government on track to end our train hell?

Rail dossier passenger stoires

Today, we’ve shared our dossier of your train hell stories with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to persuade him to act on the promises his party made in the General Election. Here, we pull just a handful of those terrible tales and ask the government to do more.

In the run-up to the last General Election, many of the major political parties made big pledges to help rail passengers.

Labour called out ‘increasingly unreliable and overcrowded services’ and pledged to ‘deliver real improvements for passengers’. The Liberal Democrats promised to ‘introduce a rail ombudsman to enforce passenger rights’ and called for ‘stronger focus on customers’ in rail. The Conservatives promised that if elected they would ‘introduce a passenger ombudsman to stand up for the interests of rail users’.

This cross-party attention on the need to deal with problems in rail struck a chord with me, and not just because it’s something that Which? has been calling for a long time.

Journey from hell

Earlier this year, I took a long train journey to visit my parents. I booked a ticket two weeks in advance, but when I turned up for my train, it turned out that the reserved seats were cancelled as they hadn’t had time to put out all the reservations. This led to a bun fight for seats and some pretty tense exchanges between passengers, while the train guards seemed to evaporate into thin air.

As the journey went on, the people around me started complaining about the state of our train. Several of us were annoyed about how overcrowded it was, and a few commented that it was ridiculous that you can let more people on trains than there are seats.

We got slowly more delayed as the journey went on, and some people started to worry about missing their connections.

People started asking about compensation and whether or not we could claim. Once the conversation got going, one woman said she made regular claims for journeys as she travels a lot, but hates how long it takes. Another person chipped in that whenever they do make a claim, all she gets is ‘a couple of quid in vouchers’, and that was almost as annoying as getting nothing back at all. The guy next to me simply said: ‘Why bother complaining? It’s just not worth the hassle.’

On my return journey, the train was so overcrowded that I couldn’t actually get into the carriage in order to see if there were any spare seats. In fact, it was so full there wasn’t space to sit on the floor – it really was standing room only for the whole two-and-a-half hours home.

Off the rails

What really struck me about these experiences and conversations was how little hope people had of anything actually getting any better – despite what politicians have promised us.

Here at Which? we know that there are quite literally thousands of other passengers out there experiencing the same kind of problems, with many of you sharing your ‘train hell’ stories with us.

In just a few months, we received over 3,000 stories. So far, more than 55,000 people have signed up to support our campaign.

We analysed the stories you told us, and found that the biggest problem people have is with punctuality, reliability, or delays to services – almost half of all the stories we received talked about this. Michael said:

‘Practically every time we have attempted to travel by rail there have been delays or a replacement bus service, which have resulted in missed appointments or arriving late for events.’

A quarter of people told us that overcrowding was a massive issue for them from being squashed or not being able to sit comfortably, to trains being so dangerously overcrowded it wasn’t possible to board the train at all. Marc remarked:

‘To say that we were packed into the carriages like sardines would be an insult to sardine packers!’

While Angelina commented:

‘I do not seem to make a rail journey recently without the train being overcrowded, cancelled or left waiting on a station late at night in bad weather with no shelter.’

And it sounds like the trains we’re using are regularly not living up to your expectations in terms of cleanliness either. Louise said:

‘All trains are filthy and full of litter, and obviously never cleaned. The stations are also poorly maintained.’

Others have had problems with the customer service they receive on trains. Chris explained:

’They make people like me feel unimportant and the staff stand at gates on their mobile phones instead of helping. They don’t know or aren’t trained in how to speak and connect with people. It’s a shambles!’

And when passengers speak up and ask for compensation, they often find the company’s response less than helpful. Of her attempts at claiming, Gemma said:

‘The last three times I have applied for compensation for delays of an hour or more, the train company has written back to say that there were no delays at that date and time.’

Janet’s experience was similar:

‘I sent a written complaint on 30 December and got no acknowledgement or response. They didn’t respond to my email. I telephoned and was told there was “at least” a three-month delay in dealing with complaints. They couldn’t even say whether they received my complaint, as nothing was being scanned onto system for “at least two months”.’

All of this is having a real impact on people’s lives. Rory summed it up well:

‘Most of all I’m furious about all the lost time – time wasted on trying to get home, time I should be spending with my wife and family, the missed meals, drinks, birthdays, meetings, appointments, anniversaries, gigs, and cinema trips… We are not cattle to be milked, or pawns to be shoved around a political board game – we are people, human beings with lives outside train stations…’

These stories get to the heart of why reform of our rail services is just so important. That’s why today we’ve sent a dossier of Which? supporter stories to the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to ask him to deliver on the promises his party made in the run-up to the General Election.

Rail dossier

Read the dossier of rail passenger stories we’re sending to Chris Grayling MP. (PDF 2.9Kb)

We want the government to take decisive action to:

  • Reform the Office of Rail and Road to put passenger needs at the heart of everything it does
  • Create a statutory Transport Ombudsman to make sure passengers aren’t ignored when things go wrong

Let us know your biggest rail concerns by completing our poll.

What is the biggest problem you face when using the railways?

Punctuality, reliability and delays (50%, 454 Votes)

Overcrowding (43%, 389 Votes)

Cleanliness (3%, 31 Votes)

Issues claiming compensation (3%, 28 Votes)

Total Voters: 902

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Lesley Edwards says:
14 July 2017

My concerns are trains leaving Glasgow queen street stopping at stations en route to destination and putting everybody off the train, leaving them with no information about how to carry on with their journey and then ignoring complaints about these debacles and you can’t get your money back either, because as previously stated they don’t acknowledge your complaint!

My main beef about the railways is unfair costs. In normal businesses, CAPITAL expenditure is not funded out of income; it is either borrowed in expectation of higher income resulting or raised from shareholders. It is wrong that passengers seem to be expected to fund both (recurring) income expenditure AND (non-recurring) capital expenditure. If railway companies need capital then it should come ideally from the shareholders by way of rights issues or similar.

Also, since capital expenditure is non-recurring it should drop out of the pricing structure when spent. Does this happen with the railway companies or do they leave it in, adding more each year, so that this element snowballs to produce even larger profits?

Capital expenditure by businesses is always paid for out of income in some form or other, Clifford. If the money is borrowed then interest is payable and charged to income. If the money is raised from shareholders it is returned to them through dividends which are paid from profits [achieved through sales so in the prices charged to customers]. Value is also returned to shareholders through share price appreciation if the business is successful as a result of the investment, that is customers paying more for the product or buying more of it. The train operating companies do not require much capital. The trains are leased and the lease rentals are a charge to operating expenses which are recovered through fares and other income like car parking charges at stations. They spend money on ticket-selling technology and station upgrades and these are calculated according to each investment or location to generate an appropriate level of additional income. Under their franchise agreements most train operating companies are having to make very large premium payments to the government and the remaining profits are actually quite small, especially in the early years of the franchise when they often run at a loss. Train operating companies are similar to utilities in making nett profits of around 2-3% of turnover. Nearly all franchises are for under ten years so there is not a lot of opportunity to roll major expenditure forward to flatter current trading figures. Unlike other businesses, train operating companies cannot expand their sales territory without winning more franchises, or increase their market share as they are usually the sole operator on their routes and are restrained by available capacity. Selling more seats between the peaks is their only way of generating more revenue and that involves discounting.

I have the displeasure if using Cross country trains almost every week. Their trains are often chronically overcrowded, guard usually offers plentiful apologies and excuses but never once have I heard mention of now being able to claim compensation for overcrowding.
So, I took to facebook and advised passengers on their facebook page about the new rights to compensation under the Consumer Rights Act. Hopefully I have helped a number of people receive some redress.
The reaction from Cross country is not address the overcrowding or advise passengers of their rights. No, they’ve blocked me from posting on their facebook page !!
They don’t stop me so easily though, I’ve now got another Facebook ID and if they block the new me I’ll get another.
All they are interested in is maximising profits for their German owners (Deutsch Bundesbahn – German State railways).

Steve says:
16 July 2017

I Book 6 weeks in advance . I travel Yorkshire to London twice a week . Never have delays trains are clean . Staff are friendly . Price is acceptable but being a Yorkshireman I’d always like it cheaper . If you all want to live down South you are going to have to live in small houses and put up with overcrowding . Yorkshire Yorkshire !

MPs are not interested in doing anything about anything unless it affects them personally then they will do something but even that takes years to come into effect because another MP will object because doing it might affect them personally Always looking after themselves not the people they are supposed to represent

Andrew Seal says:
17 July 2017

As well as the absolute price of rail travel it is miss-pricing/miss-selling that is my biggest concern with the railways. On the line I use GNR still somehow manages to get away with selling peak tickets for use at off-peak times. i.e. while some ticket types can be bought at off-peak prices to use off-peak, other types of tickets can only be bought at peak prices for use off-peak! This malpractice should be should be made illegal pronto. It would be great if Which could compile a list of rail companies using this Ryanair-style market trickery and make it available on-line. What do you think?

Kevin says:
17 July 2017

An interesting observation during the current overtime ban on Southern – During the current overtime ban, Southern have introduced a reduced timetable, removing some train services completely from the schedule. Not good on the face of it (especially if it is your train removed) BUT my experience is that from the POV of reliability the service during the OT ban has been very good (over crowded yes but the trains that are scheduled are running on-time).

So if they can manage to do that with the reduced service, why do we have problems when rolling back up to a full time-table? Is it staffing and reliance on overtime or is it lack of capacity on the line/network?

Surely this is an important question in understanding the problem and possible resolutions.

Phil says:
19 July 2017

Well firstly more trains means less “slack” time between them if something does got wrong so less chance of any serious knock-on effects and you’ve less chance of a train being cancelled because there’s no crew. Most if not all train operators run under staffed and rely on employees doing overtime but of course if they don’t want to do it we’re all stuffed.

Mike Major says:
19 July 2017

Rail travel is booming and resources in some places and on some routes struggle to keep up. The intransigence and political motivations of the unions hidden behind a veneer of safety concerns take precedence over customer convenience.
Re-nationalise the railways – be careful what you wish for! I remember British Rail and I don’t want to go back to those days.

Those who clamour for a return to complete public ownership of the railways in England, Scotland and Wales are quick to point out how surpluses could be reinvested in the system, but nobody seems to have any idea what would happen if the system made a loss, as was usually the case with the state-controlled operator British Rail. Obviously the fares would have to go up [but there’s only so far you can push up fares before market resistance counteracts it] or taxes would have to increase [bearing harshly on those who never use the trains – or even have a railway station – or are on reduced incomes]. Nationalised industries tended to have a reputation for wasteful staffing levels and costs; the trade unions would not speak up so strongly for nationalisation if they didn’t perceive an opportunity here. That’s OK – that’s their job, but we shouldn’t overlook the potential for much higher costs than the country can currently afford.

I travelled 1st Class by GWR from Reading to St Austell in June 2016. The journey was a nightmare with no air conditioning on one of the hottest days of the year. I submitted a complaint soon after. Received a reply eventually on 25th January 2017 saying £30.00 of rail vouchers enclosed. However there were no vouchers enclosed but a letter dated 3rd March saying due to technical delay in processing payment cheque would follow in two weeks. I have since sent e-mail asking where is it but to date 19th July 2017 no voucher or cheque received. I suspect that they hope I will just give up and go away. What a terrible way to deal with customer complaints!!

I like trains…

What has been appalling about this whole sorry situation , apart from the diSTESS it causes each day, is that
1. people have lost jobs and businesses as a direct result: 2 cafes in Brighton station alone have had to close but
2. property prices dropped/ sales fell through due to Brighton not being commutable last year. The human hardship has affected only the individuals trying to make a living; Not Southern, not train drivers, not the government. Funny how incompetence is now rewarded by the government!
I regularly travel to Norwich and Cambridge: Trains are on time , cared for and spotless!!

My wife suffered a delayed journey to Paddington (using GWR) in October 2017. The initial claim was denied because it was ascribed to “leaves on the line” something which is apparently not covered by consumer rights protection. However with a little persistence GWR agreed that the late departure was due to the late arrival of the train at its starting point due to operational reasons and agreed in early November 2017 to refund the cost of the single journey (approx £30).

Several ‘phone calls have elicited the fact that “the cheque was raised on 30th November”. However it has yet to descend through our letter box. Sadly the latest phone call while confirming the details included a “are you really sure you have received nothing?” – how patronising is that!

Latest promise is an email sometime next week: we are not holding our collective breath!

Any advice as to what steps we can take if the said cheque does not materialise?

They could stop the original cheque and issue a new one.

What is the situation if the train is first rescheduled, then delayed. For instance, I had a train rescheduled to arrive 39 minutes later than the original timetable said. Within the last hour before departure the departure was then postponed 30 minutes. On the way the train accrued an additional 59 minutes of delays.
So in practice my delay was 128 minutes or 2:08.

The train operator says the delay was 89 minutes, not counting the original rescheduling of the train.

Which one is fair, I guess depends on how far in advance the train was rescheduled. In my case it was 3 days before departure. Does anybody know what the guidelines here are? Thanks.

I believe, but cannot be certain, that train delays are calculated by reference to the scheduled arrival time as set out in the passenger timetable. If it is more than thirty minutes [or fifteen with some operators] then compensation is payable. So far as I am aware the compensation payable is not incremental.