/ 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

Loading ... Loading ...
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!

Clifford says:
15 July 2017

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 !

bishbut says:
17 July 2017

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?