/ Travel & Leisure

Rail: are they wheelie on track to deliver better service?

Train tracks

It was bittersweet news for rail passengers last week – Southern passengers learned they’ll get compensated for the poor services they’ve endured of late, they, along all other rail users, discovered fares will rise by an average of 2.3% from 2 January. But, do you think your train service is improving?

If you’re one of Southern’s passengers then, the chances are that, this compensation offering is small fry for what you’ve endured recently.

And whether you’re a passenger of Southern or not, you may well be troubled by the news of fare hikes, which just so happens to be the largest average rise in three years.

Surely such an increase would be all the more palatable if you could be guaranteed improvements to your service?

Rail passenger rights

As some of you may recall, last year, we made our super-complaint to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), after our research into access to compensation for rail delays and cancellations found that millions was going unclaimed every year, with only around 34% of affected passengers actually claiming.

It was clear to us that not enough was being done to inform passengers of their rights to compensation. And so we launched our Make Rail Refunds Easier campaign and made a super-complaint to the ORR.

In November, the government responded to our super-complaint on compensation for rail delays. It confirmed that it supports all improvements recommended by the ORR.

Over the past year, alongside our almost 50,000 supporters, we’ve been campaigning to get train companies to make their passengers more aware of their rights to claim compensation for train delays and take steps to make the process of claiming easier.

Getting a better service

And indeed it seems that rail passengers should be expecting improvements. The government has agreed that much more is needed from train companies and it has set out its own plan to ensure the regulator and industry push through these improvements promised in response to our super-complaint.

In fact, today, the government announced plans to reform the way rail infrastructure is managed with a review of how Network Rail shares the running of the tracks with train companies. According to the government, its plan to coordinate track control between Network Rail and train companies will improve the daily running of railways and therefore improve services for passengers.

Some of you will also recall that back in October, after waiting and waiting, we finally saw an extension of compensation rights for rail passengers to be included under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

And at the same time it was announced that rail passengers will be able to claim ‘Delay Repay’ compensation when trains are delayed by 15-29 minutes. Previous rules had only enabled passengers to claim for delays of at least 30 minutes.

This new compensation threshold will be introduced in a staggered roll-out, starting with Southern passengers, who will be able to claim for these delays from 11 December. Dates for other train companies are yet to be confirmed.

On the right track?

So, while it would seem that we could well be on the right track to seeing real improvements for passengers, much more is needed to get rail passengers a fairer deal and a better service. With improvements promised but still yet to be delivered, our work here is far from over.

Announcements on next steps for Which?’s rail campaign will be coming soon. But in the meantime, tell us: do you think train services are improving? What else would you like to see to to improve your train service?


A word of warning don’t waste your money on a senior railcard if you live in Southern Region. There is no compensation when you find it impossible to make use of the card because of cancellations. A small problem compared to those faced by most rail users but still frustrating.

The whole transport provision in the UK is a national disgrace. I’ve been to many other countries across Europe and Korea and Japan. In these places buses and trains are clean, on time and VERY affordable. Stop blaming and scapegoating the unions in the UK for this. Germany has the strongest unions in Europe because they are part of the decision making. Look at the car plant in Sunderland for how things could be. People should be proud of our public services and both buses and train networks should be nationalised and run by a national non profit body. (The East Coast line was taken back into public ownership and proved to be the best rail provider for 4 years until David Cameron re privatised it once again. Why should the tax payer subsidise a private transport system?

Very much agree with you. RIP OFF BRITAIN!

[Sorry Keith, your comment has been edited to align with our Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

I travelled extensively on British Rail over twenty years ago and found them to be reasonably good on the limited founding they were given. Now, after privativation, they have become probably the worst and most expensive service in Europe. I think I am right in saying , that nearly all rail systems in Europe are in state hands and mostly verty efficient. Thatcher had a ‘mania’ to privatise everything, which has in most cases proved to be disasterous.

And HS2 is still going ahead! Shelve this rich man’s railway, spend the money improving and repairing the whole of the UK’s failing rail system then tackle the roads, another nightmare, and finally take the rail system out of private ownership – the needs of the masses will always come behind the greed and profiteering of the few.

I agree, but a lot of the comments are political, and dwell in the past. We need action. We need to undo most of Beeching’s closures by putting money into the rail network – both public and private. Roads are important, but would be less important with a good railway system. I suggest we should only build new roads if they will speed up the rail system; rest of money into the rail network. I would hope that prices could be kept down if more people use the railways and wherever manpower is too great, move people to jobs in new stations etc. Fewer vehicles on the road; more trains!

Agree with your point but sadly we have a government who are so constrained by political dogma, have no real initiatives, no forethought, certainly not innovative at all and totally mind-set to austerity and now going to be bogged down for the next 2+ years arguing with the EU. I can see them doing absolutely no more than they did over the last 6 years. Britain and it’s infrastructure will never be great again whilst we have shambolic government and stuck in neutral.

A curious feature of the British rail system is that unit costs increase even as passenger numbers rise. This is because peak-time commuter services are very uneconomical and are effectively subsidised by off-peak travellers.

As a wheelchair user I have always found the rail services helpful and polite, but I confess I feel the fares are scandalous! As far as I am aware, our fares are the highest in Europe, and there is no excuse for that, especially when rush hour commuters are faced with not getting a seat, overcrowding, and delays.
The railway companies need to think seriously about the service they provide, in my opinion.

I would like to add also that perhaps consumer group and government must put more pressure on Southern Railway and Thameslink ( MP for Hove Peter Kyle does not do much ). I think refund admin fee 10 pounds must be abolished when you purchase online , withdraw ticket from self-service machine and then can’t travel. Also if I would like to claim refund for unused tickets for several tickets Southern railway charges 10 pounds admin fee for EACH claim even if you put all tickets in one envelope and fill in one refund form. Its not fair! The most important they should also lower off peak time to 9am not currently 10 am when they offer 9:58 train to London Victoria from Brighton ( 2 minutes before you can pay lower off peak fare)! Peak hours must be capped to 9am in the morning maximum or even earlier 8:30 as most of the people start at 8:30am working day. They should extend off peak departure until 5pm as well. The whole railway system is a ripp off and rigged by fat cat bosses who rips off the whole country ! Nationalise railways!

A national scandal and Southern Rail are just major rip off merchants. This government are useless and will do little to change things, other than paper over cracks.

I have travelled on trains in Denmark France, Germany, Italy and Spain with the conclusion our own train service ( though not subsidised as some of the aforementioned ) is probably worse than any of the third world.
Government needs to take more responsibility in the way this and many other public services are run. Shareholders are not seeing competent business interest / practices and the public more importantly are being fleeced for the lack of it.

I think a few facts of life are needed here: There is not a passenger railway in the world that makes a genuine operating profit, they all need a lot of public subsidy: Britain’s railways were all originally privately built and owned, but had many had fallen into disrepair before the second world war and the entire network was on its knees by the end of that war. British Rail was handed a herculean task of repair and modernisation but never given sufficient resources to do things properly. Nevertheless it became very good at making a little go far, remember that without shareholders every penny went back into the system and the profit-making parts; freight, commuter lines, and some main lines kept the loss-making but socially necessary feeder routes going. In it’s final ten years of existence British Rail managed to re-signal and electrify the entire East Coast main line from London to Edinburgh as well as design and develop the InterCity 225 locomotives. The British Rail designed InterCity 125’s from 1976 are still in use today! And all this on a fraction of the public subsidy the system receives today in real terms. During its final decade train punctuality averaged 95%+. Why do you think that today’s apologists for the current system never like to go back more than about 20 years when making comparisons to the past?
For all it’s faults, BR delivered at least as good an overall service as we have today for a fraction of the cost, while at the same time undertaking many major upgrades and improvements rather than just applying a lick of paint here and there.

Since privatisation the service has shown no improvement – it simply costs a lot more.

A couple of people here don’t like the cause of these problems being posted but privatisation was the cause, lack of government funding was to blame in the first instance.
The refund system only applies at the destination, if they are late en route for another connection then it doesn’t count and I had that every week returning from Somerset to London on Last Late Western. They also have a 100% allowance from Reading to Paddington ie 30 mins for a 15 min journey, a good way to avoid paying up.
British Rail had its faults, curly sandwiches being one :), but they always got me to my destination when things went wrong, they ran a fully joined up operation nationally, but not now you are on your own, “it is nothing to do with us” from the poor excuse of a customer service staff member.
It is after all PUBLIC transport and should have remained in public ownership, we still pay vast subsidies to private companies who use part of that as their profit, how can that be right? I also fail to see how you can justify the massive increase in director and high management pay that went with privatisation, sucking out more from the subsidies paid by the taxpayer.
In the Netherlands they run a fully integrated service, the bus is waiting for the train and stays even if it is late, which it isn’t.
Southern’s dispute is of their own making and it bears amazing similarity to ‘unt’s contract dispute with NHS doctors, dictators have no place in this country.

I only wish the Late Western Railway (run by First Group) had trains that could do the 36 miles from Reading to Paddington in 15 minutes – that’s an average speed of 144 mph! Admittedly under BR the HSTs were scheduled to do it in 22 minutes, so they have added minutes into the schedule all along the route and still can’t run on time. Good way of reducing the amount they have to pay as compensation for late running, without actually running the service any better. And GWR has crammed in so many seats now that long distance journeys in standard class must put you at risk of DVT. They also don’t have delay repay, you can only claim if your long distance train is more than one hour late, and even when you do they admit they are now taking three months to send you back the paltry compensation they offer. GWR is an example of how terrible privatisation has been for the railways – thankfully some operators are better but the government tried to replace even the reasonably successful West Coast Main Line operator with the dreadful First Group. Funny that First Hull Trains is actually quite highly rated – must be something to do with having competition on that route – unlike (First) Great Western Railway which has a complete monopoly on all its routes. Privatisation has resulted in a hotchpotch of different quality and fares for services that don’t connect and only gives reasonable fares if you happen to be lucky enough to be able to complete your journey using just one operator.

Maggie Taylor-Bell says:
7 December 2016

It was much better in the days of the nationalised railway service. Nowadays the taxpayer has to subsidise the rail network much more than when nationalised and the service is much poorer. Re-nationalise the railways. It makes sense.

My local ‘service’ is run by Northern Rail, who have the oldest carriages and now taxpayers are forking out to replace them! And they have the worst service for disabled passengers, they never provide any pre-booked assistance at their unmanned/part manned stations.
And my nearest intercity – Virgin North East, who are getting the largest ticket price increase yet when they were publicly owned last year the line made a decent profit. Virgin have cut staff, got rid of the cheapest ticket deals and reduced the service for passengers and now we have to pay nearly 5% extra.

The railways have been an absolute disgrace for the past 20 years and its typical that no government has really got to grips with the biggest problem of overcrowding. This was Hitler and Stalin’s preferred way of transporting people to their death before and during the war. My Polish father was wounded 2 weeks before the end of the war in the certain knowledge he could never return to a free Poland – he did not fight on so that people would be treated like cattle!

I was recently horrified at the amount of articulated lorries on our motorways. On the M6 on Friday evening on 28 October I estimate at least 10 miles of stationary traffic heading south. I was shocked and horrified that the inside lane was crammed with lorries. As we approach GRIDLOCK in most city areas surely the railways must have their share of this madness.

I do not see any other alternative than to nationalize all railways and invest in more stock and freight handling.

These stupid short term measures that successive Tory governments keep adopting towards most problems remind me of a housewife sweeping the dirt under the door mat.

Tony says:
7 December 2016

The government and railway companies underinvestment and a lack of determination has added up to the third rate system we have. To many half truths. The reason so many people use the railways now is the state of the road network!
When leadership puts wellbeing of the nation before profit is when things will improve.

Never the rail companies putting up fares by more than inflation. Not a surprise really only the 2.3% being smaller than usual. It seems that any fool can now run a rail company and ignore the passengers by supplying a very poor service. Latest move to scrap Rail Track is a start however allowing private companies to run trains and possibly rail track is a recipe for disaster.

My wife and I use the UK railway system about 6 times a year (we have a disabled rail card and are retired UK pensioners ) We book our tickets in advance about 12 weeks before our planned journey. On most of the journeys using Cross Country rail They have been OK from Stafford -Birmingham New Street. When catching the direct train from Birmingham New Street to Stansted Airport (this is our usual reason for travel on the rail network.) again using Cross Country rail . The train is usually limited to 2-3 coaches as it goes on its journey of approx 3 hrs. 20 mins. the coaches start to fill up and on most trips there is standing room only !!! We are fortunate in booking in advance and reserving seats (my wife being disabled) on the outbound journey. On our return journey of approx 3 hrs. 20 mins we only have an open ticket and on occasion have found that we are left standing (in-part) with baggage, because we cannot reserve tickets etc on an open ticket. OK we can’t reserve tickets on an open return, but if enough coaches were provided this would not happen and leave passengers standing room only. My wife has even been asked to move from a seat as this is reserved by another traveler even though she is registered disabled and been left standing with me. Occasionally we have missed connections from Birmingham New Street- Stafford and been transferred onto London Midland trains. We have found that London Midland have filthy coaches (even in First Class) and again are limited in coach numbers. We have seen prices rise over the years and where at one time (about 7 years ago) we were paying about £80.00 for a return ticket we are now paying in excess of £150.00 for the same diabolical services. Improvements are definitely needed. London Midland (in our opinion) being the worst train company on the rail network we have had occasion to use.
It’s about time these rail companies paid compensation for travelers not being able to gain a seat. Price hikes without improvements, do not justify the services (lack of) that they increase every year.

Vicky says:
7 December 2016

My rail service is the worst its ever been. The delays are more regular than a train running on or to time. And Southeastern is refusing to lower their delay repay deadline from 30 mins to 15 mins as their franchise ends in 2018. I’m routinely taking more than 2 hrs door to door to travel the 25 miles from my home in Kent to office in London, which is pretty miserable. The problem is nearly always to do with signal failures – usually in the London Bridge area, but also quite frequently around Sevenoaks. We were told we would benefit from the pain of work at London Bridge but in actual fact its much, much worse now the work is over. Someone needs to sort Network Rail out.

cliff williamson says:
7 December 2016

It was interesting to read Simons rant in support of thatchers privatization does he support the 400 million being spent on those poor socials living in that London palace that would buy a few new trains.

I travel daily on c2c to London. This year I put my annual pass onto a smart card and since then I have automatically reclaimed compensation from the late and delayed trains.
Last week when I brought a new annual ticket and the years compensation added up to about £20 off my annual ticket. Money I’d have never bothered to claim back. Making it easier to claim back the money has certainly helped, and a sign that the campaign was a success.
But £20 hardly made a difference to the £4000+ ticket.

I think all of them have a damned good cheek to impose further Rises in Rail Fares, considering the conditions the travelling public are putting up with. I remember travellign from Paddington to Slough in June this year and many of us wre wedged together in the connecting corridor between the automatic doors. With the heat; also the accumulation of bodies, I was afraid I was going to pass out. By good luck, I was alighting at Slough to change for Windsor. I love travelling by Rail, especially in Scotland but it’s such a shame how all these Private Rail Companies’ Senior Management are treating the public. Whenever are we going to see Redoubling of the Aberdeen-Inverness Line (Aberdeen-Inverurie Section) becoming a reality?