/ 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 ...
steve says:
14 July 2017

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

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!

I don’t agree. The “state of our rail network is” not “an absolute disgrace” everywhere; it may well be in some parts but those of us who travel from North Wales on Virgin stick enjoy consistently clean trains, good service, excellent time keeping and very reasonable prices.

There needs to be some discrimination between train companies – they’re not all alike.

Fair point Ian, it does depend on the company. A good example being Virgin.

Ronnie says:
14 July 2017

Southern rail has a disgraceful management and, couple with successive Ministers for Rail, they show wholesale contempt for their passengers. I have some sympathy with the unions regarding the imposition of driver only trains – my wife was on a train where only the intervention of the guard prevented a serious incident involving a care-in-the-community teenage boy.
South Western trains on the other hand are much more reliable – the problems here are mainly to do with Network Rail’s apparent inability to find a competent installer of signal equipment.
Cross Country trains are cramped and extremely expensive.
Chiltern Railway, from my limited experience, run a good, reliable and often inexpensive service.

On the question of rail fares, it is not altogether fair to pin the blame for the above-inflation rises on the train operating companies. It has been a deliberate government policy for several years now to recoup more of the operating cost of the railways from the fare box rather than taxpayers. It has made the train operating companies offer ever-higher premiums [or lower subsidy profiles] in return for the franchises to operate the train services. It has now reached the point that, overall, the railways are operating at no nett charge to the Exchequer. Government funding is still required for Network Rail, and probably always will be, for managing, maintaining and improving the network and increasing its capacity. The lack of a sensible government investment strategy that would keep pace with increases in demand has led to a catalogue of asset failures on the system that are the principal causes of the delays and disruptions that passengers on the most intensive services frequently experience.

On the current disputes regarding the removal of guards on the Southern system, the company has replaced the guards with On Board Supervisors who actually have an enhanced passenger support and safety role in the absence of having to deal with door-opening procedures. Whereas previously Southern trains were not permitted to run without a guard on board – thus leading to cancellations and disruption – they are now permitted to operate without an OBS in defined and restricted circumstances which has improved reliability. The dispute continues because the trade unions are disputing the fundamental principles of staff functions and duties on Southern where certain exacerbating conditions prevail.

Dan says:
14 July 2017

We can’t make the trains run on time, but why pay more than you have to?

CommuterClub offers affordable and flexible access to the huge savings of an annual season ticket, without the upfront cost.

John Evans says:
14 July 2017

Not all things about the railways are bad: My train to Hereford from Stockport was cancelled at Crewe and we all had to wait for the next train which was, as you might expect, full. My wife managed to get on but there was no room for me. The guard, bless her, saw that i was stranded and she walked along the platform with me until we found a tiny space in the vestibule. Without help from that guard I would have missed that train.

Yes John that was lovely of the guard to help you and your wife. However my argument would be that there should have been room for you on the train. The fact that you ended up in a tiny space in the vestibule makes me cross that these rail companies think this is acceptable for passengers who have paid good money for what barely passes for being a service.

And to lighten things somewhat, cheerful but cynical guard on Arriva Cross Country train doing ticket check invited passengers to ‘show him our donations to Frau Merkel’s Railway Company.’

Gerry says:
14 July 2017

You’ve overlooked the main problem of the sky-high fares which can only be offset slightly if you can get a special ticket valid only on the fifth Wednesday of a month without an ‘R’ in it.

At least you always get a seat with Ryanair…

agreed Gerry- even if it is a rubbish seat on Ryanair, is still a seat. A train ticket on the other hand allows you to travel but not necessarily to have a seat unless booked in advance.

Noted but they don’t operate flights from Gloucester to Worcester Foregate Street 🙁

Not necessarily! Recently a friend flew with Ryanair and the seat in front of her had no seat cushion and was therefore not usable, but they still allocated someone to it!

So the wheel well was full, then? 🙂

Travelling from Dunbar to London Kings Cross in April last, on the first leg Dunbar – Newcastle with ‘Cross Country’, the driver was reportedly absent at Aberdeen. Total delay was one hour. We completed the compensation forms immediately- but have heard nothing since.

To add insult to injury, Southern’s new timetable proposals for next year are reducing direct services between Brighton and Redhill to two off-peak trains a day. From where we live that means hubby will now have two changes instead of one and an increased journey time. Southern’s survey on the changes asks “How likely are you to use the service after these changes” without the option to choose “Don’t have a choice without changing my job”. So more woe to come. Southern are also trying to promote it’s own keycard variation of oyster, we have one each as it’s convenient for season tickets, we discovered too our horror when attempting to by day return tickets to London, that the ‘Cheapest possible fare’ declared on the key card page was twice the ‘Cheapest possible fare’ on the paper ticket page for the same trains. Same website, same page layout, just selection of an option – so it’s a deliberate filter. We await to hear news on our complaint about misleading price advertising!!

We traveled from Rhyl to Euston, weekday, one in a wheelchair,booked Virgin Trains.
train came into rhyl, on time,we were helped on to train,with a ramp.we were shown our reserved seats.
Settled in to our seats.Train arrived in Euston . we were taken of the train after most others left the train.
Terrible Que for taxis. Went out side,flagged a taxi. Got to our destination, eventually, we weren’t understood, due to our accents, found it in the end. Decided to return to the Station for the train by
using our chairs. Used to them being in north wales, When the train was due to depart back to north wales,the porters took us along to our reserved seats, they had been taken. Porter told them to shift.
Wheel chairs and walking sticks make a persuasive argument. We train then went onto north wales.
We were unable to get off at Rhyl,due to the lift stopped working at 8 pm. Unable to get off at colwyn bay,
no facilities for wheelchairs.Went on the Llandudno Junction.able to get off there. Virgin Trains then had to find us a taxi to return to Rhyl. we arrived home 4 hours late. Must of cost Virgin Trains a lot for the taxi. Happy days. not a bad out. And we had only gone to a volunteers meeting.

I travel to and from London from Preston or Manchester on Virgin west coast several times a year – we have had several hold ups outside Virgin control – people on the Line – broken windows etc – compensation has always been paid promptly and when we have missed our last connection to our local station a taxi has been provided at no cost to us.
The trains on the west coast line are usually very clean – but we have occasionally had the problem with the reservations missing and arguments amongst passengers.
Northern trains on the Blackpool to Manchester route (I travel off peak) now often have more carriages improving on the day long overcrowding of past years but the rolling stock is still noisy and juddery and very sparten – we look forward to new electric trains when the upgrade to the line is completed – completion date is always next year and has been for about 3 years.

Driver Only Operation trains cannot be used on Southern, for H&S reasons. The network is too busy, has too many crossings & junctions, and subject to too much responsibility for one driver.
All day, every day at East Croydon and Clapham Junction alone, drivers simply cannot watch for signals to depart, while monitoring the train doors at the same time. This may either end up with train doors closed, so no-one can get on it despite the train remaining stationary, which will result in more passenger complaints. It may, alternatively, end up with a driver closing doors while watching the signals, as someone is trying to board the train, get caught and dragged onto the railway. The same is true for many other stations at rush hour, notably Stratford and Finsbury Park, where sooner or later, a disaster will happen. Anyone who believes safety is worth ignoring in order to cut costs should go visit Grenfell Tower.

Margaret Kerss says:
14 July 2017

The sheer complexity of train travel is costly in staff & travellers’ time. When the government had to take charge of the eastern line, it made money for UK. Why can’t do this for all our lines instead of letting off-shore companies take our profits & subsidies? Small government it may be but it seems plain unpatriotic.

Colm says:
14 July 2017

A couple of years ago a three and a half hour journey turned into 14 hours we were stuck at Taunton as a bridge had been washed away they could have arranged transport but we spent the night on the train the crew offered to stay to keep the engine running and supply hot drinks etc it spoilt my Christmas


Last week I saw the new trains for the West of England services, impressive except for lack of luggage space, no buffet car, leg room minimal. I asked about the Buffet and was told it would be a trolley service to your seat, however as the West of England services are notoriously overcrowded, a trolley will be a non starter unless trains are kept free from obstruction throughout, unfortunately an impossibility down here and the thought of five and a half hours on these is almost unbearable, the HST’s might be 40 years old but are far better suited for purpose.

I support the railway workers and unions as they are putting our safety first. Being on a 12-carriage overcrowded train feels really unsafe and with only the driver means if anything goes wrong we will be stuck as he/she would be obliged to stop the train to investigate. Also, train companies should not be relying on overtime to run their services. We are too overcrowded in the South East. I have had good experiences on intercity trains, usually, and feel that these problems in the South could be sorted out with acknowledgement of the train crews’ position, the customers’ views and meaningful intervention from government – stop blaming the unions and let’s talk about how to resolve these issues urgently please!

Try living beyond a Metropolitain region – where your service is run by rail buses from 1985 or 1 car units. Then get Metropolitains on holiday moaning their is nowhere to put the vast amouts of luggage they carry and bloody cycles. – until they bring back the brake van/baggage car Cycles should be banned!

Peter says:
14 July 2017

If it were possible in reality, it’s not but I can dream, there should be some kind of priority to commuters with season tickets. I get the same trains every day for work (to/from Oxford to the midlands) and the amount of times I suffer by people who use the trains infrequently, grrgh! There should be a rule that you have to give up your seat. The worst is when you have to stand from the moment you get on, but then some one who is getting off at the next stop waits until the next stop, then causes everyone to move for them to get off. When they could of just given up there seat and been ready to get off. Typically it’s not more than 5-10 minutes between stops.

If you’re not a commuter your complaining about once in a blue moon that it happened. Imagine if you commute what it’s like when it happens regularly.

The most annoying “trick” the train companies/stations play is where they start by saying the train is delayed by a few minutes, then a few more, then it just says “delayed” and then it’s taxi’s or coach replacement. By the time they decided to tell the truth a ton more people have turned up after me and after my train is suppose to have left so there is a scrum for the replacement transport. Despite this happening many times the staff that organise it are often clueless. You’d think given how often it happens it would be part of there training and it would be well organised – but nope, same old **** ever time. In some cases when it happens a particularly bold customer takes it into there own hands and organises the rest of us because the staff are so **** poor.

Since season ticket holders pay the least per mile for their journeys [on the notional basis of ten a week] and generally occupy the trains mainly in the peak periods [when extra capacity has to be provided that is idle in between the peaks] I am not sure your suggestion would meet with widespread acclaim, Peter. I would expect those who pay the most for their travel to have priority in seat allocation.

My concern during this “Disabilities Week” is that, in the future, my disabled friends will be discriminated against directly by the deployment of driverless trains. Some of them will not be able to use rail-travel AT ALL!

Since Virgin took over the East Coast line from the publicly owned company the prices have steadily increased, especially at holiday times, when people will be travelling home The prices are now exorbitant. My own daughter lives in London and looked for at least six weeks at prices for travelling home the May Bank Holiday and London to Durham would have cost her £120.00. Could have flown abroad much cheaper than that!!!
My worst train journey was again Virgin London Kings Cross to Durham and the train broke down Durham side of Darlington and there we sat for FIVE hours. WE were offered small bottles of water but no food. Compensation was just the price of my ticket. One person had travelled up for a meeting from Cambridge, missed the meeting and had to wait for a train to take him back