/ 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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steve says:
14 July 2017

Its the price thats the biggist problem not any of the things you listed they are just anoyanses

C S Petherick says:
15 July 2017

Price indeed! It can easily be cheaper to fly than to take a train. I imagine that subsidies are involved –
but if the airlines are subsidised, why not train services to the same degree, so that train fares are cheaper than air fares? As of course should be the case.


If you have to go from Chelmsford to London everyday comparing the cost with airline fares is pointless. On longer distance journeys, for example Edinburgh to London, the train is competitive and the railways have captured market share. I don’t think subsidies are available for air travel except to the extent that aviation fuel does not carry so much duty as other fuel. Despite the longer journey times, train travel can be more convenient city centre to city centre and does enable stopping-off en route.


From the Which? poll results above, it seems to me that, under free market principles, train operators should:

Significantly RAISE prices, to reduce demand and overcrowding.

REDUCE the number of trains run and INCREASE journey times, to improve reliability and lower the risks of late arrivals and departures.

However, I doubt that Which? (or anyone else) is (or should be) aiming to achieve these outcomes.

If, at our recent general election, we had elected a good nationalist or socialist government, then we would now have a majority government that was prepared to invest in rail (and other transport) infrastructures to foster economic growth. I fear that, instead, we ended up with a hung parliament, in which the minority government will struggle even to discharge its democratically assigned mandate for Brexit, never mind get anything else done.

We voted for Brexit and we voted the present MPs into post. I think it also behoves us to do what we can to campaign for better railways and roads, but we need to come up with more positive ideas than just moaning about the issues involved.


Is it possible that the rail network is about as big as it can get in terms of capacity at peak times?

In your analysis how much of the problem was rush hour, or going into London, and how much were complaints about problems during non-peak periods. Without that sort of data it really does not shed much light onto what is going wrong.

I note that new towns are built within commuting distance of London on existing lines which surely must exacerbate the problems reported.

I am sure that there are other problems in terms of staff demotivation and training. The Government of course wastes money on prestige fast lines without thinking of the most bangs for the buck and the inherent stupidity of people being forced out of London by high prices and being forced to pay significant amounts of income to travel back.

The Government can help by forcing businesses out of London. Charities would be an easy target as they normally are receiving special tax relief which could be removed if you employ more than x staff in London or have your HO there. Follow this up with heavyweight companies dependent on Government contracts, and given those threatening to leave from the City it may be possible to balance rail capacity better.


Not only should we encourage businesses and public bodies to relocate out of major overcrowded cities – to access cheaper housing and reduce commuting costs – we could also reduce overcrowding and delays for those who do need to travel into major cities by staggering working hours. A free solution that won’t make any consultants any money, however, so let’s not consider it.


Thank you for highlighting this issue and for lobbying Chris Grayling for action. The state of our rail network is an absolute disgrace not only for the reasons you have stated Jack and the examples given by long suffering passengers, but also as Steve says, the cost. Prices keep rising while standards continue to plummet. I wrote a blog post myself about my experience with Cross Country after travelling with them to the northern homeland. This was during off peak periods. I would rather drive up the M6 and sit in back to back traffic than ever travel by rail again. Overcrowding, delays and dirty carriages plus judging from some of the comments above, the companies involved have no interest at all in listening to how customers feel. A 3 month wait for a reply to a complaint is beyond disgraceful!