/ Travel & Leisure

Were you stranded by South West Trains last night?

My journey to and from work yesterday tallied up to five hours! I could have flown to another country and back. Where do I live? Sleepy Surrey. So I’m asking South West Trains to refund fares as a goodwill gesture.

It’s been a bit of a week. South West Trains (SWT) issued a sheepish apology this morning, after a week of disruption:

‘We have endeavoured to minimise the impact of these problems, although this is of little consolation if you have been affected by one or more of these events.’

Too right! Although SWT said last night the delays were the result of signalling problems, this morning they blamed stolen cabling as the cause.

Unfortunately, train companies aren’t obliged to offer compensation when the delay is outside of their control – such as an act of vandalism. However, we think, as a good will gesture, SWT should put themselves in their passengers’ seats and offer compensation.

How long is too long?

Memories of Hannah Jolliffe’s Conversation floated through my mind last night on my epic three and half hour journey home. How long is too long when it comes to commuting?

I’ve commuted into London for around six years now and my journey usually takes an hour door-to-door. I think that’s acceptable, and I’d go as far to say that it’s impressive to go from one county to the next in such a short space of time.

Plus, I’m pretty tolerant of delays. If I realise I’m going to be delayed, I’ll go for a walk, a drink or get a bite to eat and wait it out.

Although I’m not one of the fortunate few that has the money to get a taxi all the way home, I’m not a vulnerable traveller. I was shocked to hear people arranging taxis from Waterloo to Winchester last night! Ouch!

Tales of commuters having to help a pregnant woman off the train and walk her down the tracks are unacceptable. Why, when a train company is aware of an issue, do they allow a train to start a journey, sit in the middle of nowhere and then get commuters to fend for themselves?

Helping in times of need

Last night I was saddened to see groups of older people looking cold, lost and confused. I think travel companies should have a support team to help those who need extra help getting home. As far as I was aware, there were no alternative transport arrangements. Tannoy announcements simply apologised and said trains were subject to severe delays.

I very nearly walked through my train to encourage everyone to complain and get compensation for their journey. However, that would have been tough with passengers packed shoulder to shoulder, and I was slightly nervous I’d get thrown off for sounding a little crazy.

Still, if it wasn’t caused by cable theft, you would have been entitled to a 100% refund of your fare if you were delayed by over an hour. Ok, it’s in National Rail vouchers, but it is compensation nonetheless. If you’re a season ticket holder, different rules apply.

Were you stranded last night? Do you think South West Train’s apology is good enough in place of compensation? Join me in getting it off your chest.

Elizabeth says:
10 June 2011

I’m livid with South West Trains for the callous and careless attitude demonstrated to their passengers, both at the stations and on the trains. I was lucky enough to get to Woking station finally, to join thousands of others who were simply dumped there and abandoned to continue their jiourneys some other way. Glad to see they got their priorities right and called in a police presence overkill. Pathetic. SWT should hang their heads in shame.

Rebecca says:
10 June 2011

I was on a train heading for Southampton via Basingstoke, where I live. It left Waterloo 20 minutes late but, compared with my 3 hour 50 minute journey home on Monday, I thought that that wasn’t so bad…until the guard suddenly announced that the train was being diverted through Guildford and Havant, and that anyone travelling to Farnborough, Fleet or Basingstoke would have to get off at Guildford and go from there. The guard on train no. 1 told us to catch a train to Woking and then another to Basingstoke, but having heard horror stories from a friend of gridlock at Woking I was reluctant to do that. The station staff at Guildford advised us to catch a train to Reading and change there. I caught the Reading train and got off at North Camp where, thankfully, my husband was able to pick me up. I have submitted an online complaints form for both journeys and will see what happens…

Victoria Stewart says:
10 June 2011

I was stuck on the 6:05 train going back home to Southampton stuck at Woking for hours. We (a colleague and I) abandoned all hope of getting a train home and, with two fellow passengers, got a taxi to Basingstoke where we got picked up. I am ashamed to admit it but there was an old lady on my train and I wish I had tried to make sure she got home ok as I don’t like the thought of her trying to figure out what to do. Train staff were not going round checking if there were more vulnerable passengers who needed assistance like they should have done. I will be writing to the company to claim back my portion of the taxi fare, food I bought, the price of my ticket for the journey and letting them know my disgust of how they treated their customers. I would urge anyone who feels as strongly as I do to do the same.

Richard Smith says:
10 June 2011

I was on the 6:30 to Portsmouth, heading for Guildford, which I finally reached at 11:30 last night.

As I have a monthly season ticket it appears that I won’t be liable for any compensations (for my 5 hours spent as SWTs hostage) unless the overall stats for the month fall below a certain level. No doubt these will be suitable massaged to avoid paying out!

My understanding of what happened last night is as follows:

1. Signal failure between Woking and Basingstoke – which may or may not have been caused by theft of copper wires (the story quickly pushed out by SWT;s PR people this morning)
2. Train stuck at Woking without a driver/crew – causing all the other fast trains needing to go through Woking to back up. What happened to the original crew? What is/was the contingency plan?
3. Long wait…….little if any information on when (if at all) replacement crew would turn up to get rid of obstructing train…
3. Some people (including pregnant lady) get fed up and walked off the trains (probably because they could see their houses from the carriage and were going nuts!)
4. Power turned off so as avoid frying escapees….further long wait
5. Eventually power turned back on. By this time presumably someone qualified to drive a train had mysteriously been found at Woking to remove the blockage.

In short, if theft was the cause of the original disruption, SWT made things ten times worse by:
– failing to deal with the blockage at Woking
– failing to communicate with their staff (on the trains) or with passengers

At one stage, the train crew on my train were looking for off duty Policemen or rail employees – presumably for ‘crowd control’? This is symptomatic of an approach which seeks to ‘control’ passengers rather than ‘serve’ customers.

There need to be some guidelines as to what the train operators do when faced with an issue like this. Currently, customer comfort and convenience comes bottom of the list.

Phil says:
10 June 2011

What happened to the original crew?

Probably ran out of hours. Like PSV and HGV drivers the hours train crews can work are restricted by law. If they don’t have enough relief crew on standby the operators are reduced to ringing round and trying to persuade somebody to come in and work on what ought to be a rest day and they could live miles away.

Mark says:
12 June 2011

It is against the rules to leave a train unattended on a running line. If the crew did that they face some serious disciplinary procedures.
The crew on board your train may have been asking for any policemen/women and rail employees as these may be deemed “competent persons”. The crew of the train can then, on authority from those above, open some doors and place these people there to supervise the open doors…i.e…To make sure no one falls or jumps out.

Ms Fed Up says:
10 June 2011

I agree that in situations like these, little thought is given to those who are elderly, vulnerable, or unwell. People are left to fend for themselves without food / water etc or information. I caught a train at 7:20pm from Waterloo and got off the train in Woking at 11:30pm. My bus ticket had little value by that time! I caught a taxi home as I have no relatives in the area to call upon, which was £12.50 and bought a tea on board – £1.60. Surely once a train has been delayed a certain length of time – particularly when it hasn’t called into a station to pick up any new passengers – refreshments should be offered free of charge – at least liquid..!? This should be a matter of course. I also think that in situations where a person is unable to take another method of transport to their home destination – some sort of compensation should be paid for taxi fares etc.

Anon says:
10 June 2011

I agree. I am pregnant but in my first trimester, so pregnant enough to be knackered all the time but not pregnant enough to show and so be offered a seat!

Rebecca says:
10 June 2011

How exactly does this “void day” system work? I buy my season ticket on a monthly basis and had to renew it this morning – nothing was mentioned about any discount…

Adrian Chapman says:
10 June 2011

Hi Charlotte
Good article. I left work at 5.40 and didn’t get home until after midnight. 6 hours on the train on what should normally take an hour. No information, no food, no water, and for a couple of those hours no power (so limited lighting and no fresh air). No proper information at Woking. Even when passengers were falling ill on the train they were putting out calls for food, water and doctors among the passengers to help because they had no resources on the train. The police were next to the train at this point arresting passengers that had broken out yet none of those were called to help the sick passengers. The get out clause on compensation adds insult to injury.

what happened to the old way, whereby a breakdown of a train led to a bus service – calling at all the stations on that route – was called upon?
What about this same bus service provided when there are delays and people with valid tickets are waiting at stations?

If the rules have been changed, who changed them and why?

This case is hardly encouraging people to use public transport is it!

Good article, Charlotte.
I’m a regular commuter from Hampshire into Waterloo. These serious incidents are getting to be more and more frequent. On Monday evening there were delays of several hours for commuters trying to get home. It seems to be one major incident every month or so.
While last night’s semmed to be due to a combination of circumstances, SWT didn’t cope with it well at all. I arrived at Waterloo at 11pm after a function – to be greeted by mostly blank screens with three boards flashing mythical departures.
There was one poor SWT guy trying to deal with queries valiantly. The only other officials were several police/security people – but scant information.
Quite clearly it was going to be pot luck getting a train back to Hants – even the SWT man didn’t seem to belive anything would be moving that night. So I ended up getting a very expensive taxi home – at least I wasn’t stuck on an overcrowded train.
Please someone fix the track infrastructure and make it more resilient. And SWT please put in place some emergency procedures and staff to react to these things.

Carol says:
10 June 2011

The cause of the initial problem might have been an attempted theft of copper wire. The reason my 2 hour journey took 7 hours was SWTs total failure to manage the situation. They shouldn’t have even let the train leave Waterloo.

I commute into the Which? office from Aldershot, but luckily I just made it home before all of the problems kicked off on Thursday.
However, my girlfriend wasn’t so lucky (in fact, I think she may have been on the same train as you, Charlotte). I ended up driving to Woking to pick her up, and we got home at 11.30!
As Pete says, this kind of thing is becoming more regular and it seems that when there’s any kind of problem on the SWT network, the whole thing just collapses.
Surely they should have some kind of procedure in place for very long delays like this one – such as turning off the power and letting passengers on trains near a station walk off down the tracks?
It might not be simple to organise, but surely it’s preferable to having everyone stuck for hours on end.