The railway becomes Mr Nasty

I have had a couple of bad experiences with train operators recently (and one good one,but you will have to read about that in my Rail column). The most unpleasant was a nasty little train guard who would not let me onto a Virgin train despite the fact that I told him I had been unable to retrieve my ticket from the machine because I had been given the wrong code number by the travel agent.

He would not let me on the train at Euston unless I paid the full fare to Liverpool, £67, even though I explained that the information was all in my computer which I could open up on the train. Then worse, Virgin have so far refused me a refund, even though the guard promised I would get one, on the grounds that I should have had a valid ticket to show the guard – even though they know full well that I have paid twice for one journey. It is pure theft and I will battle onto to try to retrieve the money.

The other bad experience was with FirstGroup. I bought tickets in advance to go to Swindon but in fact did not need to travel. So I claimed the refund online but because I bought two single tickets, they have charged me two lots of £10 for the admin charge, rather than one. Again, I will try to make a fuss but it rather spoils the game if they find out who I am.

I was talking the other day to a past member of a local passengers consultative committee and I have to agree with him that abolishing the regional groups does seemed to have weakened passenger pressure on the railways.

  • “The most unpleasant was a nasty little train guard who would not let me onto a Virgin train…”

    This is more than a little unfair. The poor chap’s only doing his job, which is, if memory serves, to *stop* people without valid tickets from getting on the train. In this particular instance, he appears to have been perfectly within his rights.

    Okay, sure, technology appears to have let you down, but that’s what you get for relying on ageing 1970s networking technology originally designed to nuke-proof US government research laboratories, not for commerce and communications between the general public and major corporations. The Internet is the VHS of networking: it won because it was *cheap*, not because it was any bloody good.

    Print the effing thing out *before you leave*, sir! That’s what printers are *for*. They’re not even expensive any more.

    Virgin’s refusal to refund you “on the grounds that I should have had a valid ticket to show the guard” is also perfectly valid. No ticket? No travel! It’s printed right there in their terms and conditions. Granted, there’s much to be said for bending the rules, but “computer says ‘No!'” is the modern customer service mantra. If it’s not on the script, it’s not happening.

    Unless, of course, you’re a big cheese in the industry.

    This is “UK Plc.” at its finest. We get the government, services, society and culture we deserve. We have nobody but ourselves to blame for the (re)actions of our *elected* governments. *We* put them in place. (Correction, YOU did, dear reader; I’ve never voted for either Labour or Tory.)

  • Dan

    These are the sorts of problems highlighted by Nigel Harris in his recent Rail editorial – treating your actual paying customers like shop lifters. You’re wrong Sean – in this situation – it’s jobsworth ism – (I’m not sure what the height of the Gaurd had to do with it though Christian) – after all – the gaurd could have let you on – if your lap top could not proove the ticket issue when on board – THEN you could have been charged for the extra ticket by him after all.

    Meanwhile of course one is left with the impression that the genuine fare dodgers and ‘n’er do wells’ get away with never buying tickets, riding short, abusing other passengers etc etc.

    Again this is precisely what the advocates of private sector customer satisfaction would have us believe the private sector could have sorted out (since jobsworth attitudes were generally regarded as one of the criticisms of bad old BR by its detractors).

    The problem is the reality gap behind the image portrayed by the Virgin Group in the media (the cuddly Richard Branson image) and the situation on the ground. Branson et al should sort this.

    As to FIRST GW – you don’t really have much of a case – but again it is not customer friendly. You don’t state – but presumably you booked in Advance to get a saving on the Swindon Journey? – then had to cancel – this is the problem with Advance tickets and 2 singles are 2 tickets (if it had been cheaper / possible to buy a return, no doubt you would have done so, and been subject to only 1 £10 fee). Again – Nigel’s point about the system being in disrepute. But you KNOW you sacrifice felxibility when you buy Advance tickets – its part of the deal. My Golden Rule – never buy an Advance ticket unless you are saving at least £5 (maybe that should be £10 given the refund rule).

    As to the TUCC’s – I bet you are right. Surely the logical thing would have been to have had under the national Passenger Focus tag ‘local’ PF bodies – with teeth – that were no longer organised regionally – but with a geographical area that broadly shadowed the Franchise Map – with the larger TOCs (East Coast, West Coast, XC) being accountable to the (various) regional TOC based groups they passed through – eg for Virgin West Coast they could be accountable to ‘London Midland’ / ‘Northern’ / ‘Scotrail’ PF groups?

  • @Dan: “You’re wrong Sean – in this situation – it’s jobsworth ism”

    Jobsworths aren’t new. They’re just more common now because corporations tend to rule through fear. They don’t want intelligent, initiative-showing, quick-witted people on their staff: brains cost *money*! They want drones. Machines in human form.

    That guard was probably living in fear of losing his job. Sure, it would have been *nice* if he’d gone that extra mile, letting this random stranger through the barriers without a ticket on the guy’s own say-so, but he ran the very real risk of being fired for doing so. A single annoyed stranger is a small price to pay for job security.

    Never mind that faking a plausible-looking e-ticket email from a travel agency isn’t exactly difficult, so looking at one on a screen is utterly pointless.

    Never mind that Christian *admits* that it was his *travel agent’s fault* that he had been given the wrong code. THERE is your culprit. (You might want to look into ABTA’s Code of Conduct, Christian. You may find a means of redress there.)

    The only thing missing from Christian’s rant was a foot-stamping roar of, “You miserable little peasant! Don’t you know who I AM?” I laud Christian’s restraint in not taking things that far, but I simply do not agree with his blaming a guard for doing his damned job. Any failing Virgin Trains’s management may have are not the guard’s fault.

  • John Roberts

    Re the Swindon experience, with cheap walk on single fares from £20 single, the advantage of advance fares is much reduced. (Cheap first class fares are good value if booked in advance though.)

    Indeed, the new fare structure on FGW is a big improvement in that there’s no need to buy a walk on return – just buy singles and you will always get the cheapest fare for the journey you are about to make. Moreover many return journeys are now much cheaper, due to some peak fares now being off-peak, and the ability to buy a single for half the price of a return, not £1 cheaper. This latter point makes a journey up in the peak and back off peak considerably less than before.

  • Richard Boyd

    I’ve never much bought into this, “They’re only doing their job” argument because no-one is compelled to do a specific job and if the individual finds his or her duties that distasteful then they are free to seek employment elsewhere. The number of jobsworths anywhere is directly related to the number of regulations and an industry seemingly intent on leaving nothing to chance has proved a very fertile breeding ground.

    As for the Swindon tickets, what did you expect from a company with eye-wateringly large premium payments to the DfT to meet?

  • Christian Wolmar

    I think you are a bit hard on me Sean (though I do take Dan’s point about ‘little’). If I explained that i could sort it out on the train, he could have taken my word. And for Virgin not to refund the ticket is a disgrace – why should they be entitled to revenue twice for the same product. No other consumer industry behaves like that.

    I am interested in the points made by John Roberts which are correct. The new fares structure does mean a more accurate matching between peak demand and the tickets available and yesterday I did save a fiver by using two singles. But it is quite a confusing system to people who are used to buying returns for a quid more than the single, something I thought was daft.

    Interestingly, on an unrelated point, no one checked my ticket on either the outgoing or return journey yesterday between London and Bristol Parkway.

  • Dan

    Yes, Sean – the point is that there is not a barrier at Euston (not on platforms I have seen recently although I don’t regularly travel from there so I’d stand corrected) – so we’re presumably talkign about a situation where Christian approached the gaurd before commencing travel to explain the situation and ask for him to use his discretion – as he could have doen without fear of losing his job I’d have thought – gaurd was not prepared to do so.

    However, your point about paying for brains is very valid. It’s the industry that has made up a very complicated fares structure – that staff can sometimes not understand it themselves (not this instance but I make a more general point) is down to industry recruitment and training – if you want a low pay, cheap wage, low skill workforces you have to have simple products (eg fast food outlets don’t employ chefs, they have machines that cook products to time, and operatives who take food in and out of those machines, such staff do not need to be highly paid). The rail industry could actually cut costs by cutting product complexity. I wonder if they have thougth of that.

    Good performance on Radio 4 Today this am Christian, well done in the time slot available.

  • David

    I’m going a bit off topic here, but can anyone help?

    Dan made reference to the editorial in the latest issue of ‘Rail, and in it Nigel Harris also mentioned the total number of passenger journeys taken last year; 1.27bn.

    I’m not clear as to how this figure is arrived at, but I guess each single ticket sold counts as one journey, a return as two. Certain assumptions must be made about season tickets, rovers, etc, and these will be added to singles and returns sold to arrive at the total number of passenger journeys made.

    In the examples quoted by Christian, the advance tickets purchased were for journeys with just one company; Virgin to Liverpool and FGW to Swindon. So if my guess as to how passenger journeys are counted is correct, the actual number of passengers being carried would have matched ticket sales if Christian hadn’t been made to pay a second time for his journey; but as soon as this happened, it put ticket sales out of line with the number of passenger journeys actually made.

    Earlier this year, my family made two journeys by rail which crossed “company boundaries”; one was from Derby to Warminster, another from Nottingham to Sheringham. Back in BR days, we would have purchased tickets for the complete journey, but we saved a considerable amount by purchasing two tickets for each single journey. To Warminster, we had advance Cross Country tickets to Cheltenham, then advance FGW ones on to our destination, and for Sheringham, we had EMT advance ones to Norwich, then NXEA cheap-day singles (I think) onwards.

    Now if we add together Christian’s tickets and the ones I purchased, if we assume that Christian had actually traveled to Swindon we have a total of 21 tickets sold but only 12 journeys taken; so if ATOC count every ticket sold as a passenger journey, in the above example they are claiming that 75% more people are traveling by train than is actually the case.

    Situations like this must happen many times throughout each year – on occasions I’ve heard conductors offering to endorse tickets for passengers on late running trains to show that they missed their connection for which they had an advance purchase ticket through no fault of their own; moreover, if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were taken from our home in Derby to Nottingham by car and collected from there on our return journey, we would have made the percentage difference even worse as we would also have purchased singles to and from Nottingham! (To save the maths, 25 tickets would have been sold, still only 12 journeys made, so tickets sold are 108% greater than journeys made)

    So does anyone know if my guess as to how passenger journeys are calculated is correct? Does ATOC build in any “fiddle-factor” to minimise the effect caused by passengers buying a number of separate tickets for various legs of what is, in effect, a single journey? Or is the claim that 1.27bn passenger journeys were made last year and that this is significantly greater than in the last years of British Rail totally misleading as its a comparison of apples with oranges? And if the ATOC figure is misleading and the comparison false, does anyone really have any real grasp as to how many rail journeys were actually made last year?

  • Ian Raymond

    In terms of paying for brains… really nasty incident recently due to staff not being trained properly.
    Travelling back to Rock Ferry from one of my regular visits to Devon, one of the roving Merseyrail ticket inspectors declared my ticket invalid. (What used to be called a saver return, god knows what it’s labelled now). All he was looking at was the date of issue – his mantra was “Yes, but that’s not the date today,” despite my pointing out it wasn’t feasibly possible to get to Devon and back in a day and that the ticket was valid for a month – I guess not having been trained to recognise that there were such things as tickets covering more than a 1-day trip! As I (understandably) refused to pay for a new ticket and a fine, he was just about to call for the police – I was only rescued by a member of Merseyrail staff travelling “on the cushions” in the same carriage.
    In fairness to Merseyrail, they tend to be pretty good as an urban railway, with excellent booking office staff, information provision and security – it just tends to be in terms of understanding that people connect to the “main line” that they are completely and totally abysmal failures.

  • RapidAssistant

    It certainly flies in the face of Virgin’s reputation of being a “fun” company to transact with. It is on the other hand, a positive thing that Virgin have manual ticket barriers on the ramps at Euston to prevent people getting on the wrong train with Advance tickets – something I seldom see on the main line platforms at King’s X – perhaps why NXEC and GNER before it attracted more headlines on this thorny issue.

    But no I disagree with Sean as well on this one – a bit of discretion should be allowed in situations like this and I applaud Nigel Harris’ editorial in the latest RAIL on the lunacy of the fares system which this case highlights.

    Christian – I think you should go straight to the man with the beard and the cardigan on this one!

    On a lighter note, I was on a Euston-Glasgow service on Virgin a couple of weeks ago, and the staff couldn’t have been more courteous. Train manager, the catering staff – all excellent – friendly and looked really enthused by what they were doing. Didn’t make me feel half as bad about the 1 hour delay that happened due to faulty points at Lancaster!

  • Dan

    David – very interesting point – and worth pursuing. If I were you I’d raise it with Barry Doe (Barry flagged up the railway station use figures published by DfT or Pass. Focus (I think) being more or less fantasy statistics that were clearly inaccurate – I think he claimed to have used 1 station more times himself than the stats inidicated all users used it for!) see

    http://www.barrydoe.plus.com/

    his website for contact details. His thoughts on these stats would be interesting.

    My hunch is they are complete estimations – and almost certainly have nothing to do with exact matches to ticket sales as you outline.

    The other source could be using the Government’s National Travel Survey stats to extrapolate figs (I know this is done rigorously as a mate works for the contractor that does this survey and he has told me basic methodology – totally valid – but it relies on a random sample keeping travel diairies of their own movements and modes for a set period – and these are extrapolated out to provide national estimates I suppose – that is valid method – but nothing like you outline – and thus is an estimated useage figure – whereas your description implies it is an actual valid count.

    If the stats are from ATOC I would wonder if they are really from the source that the journalist Simon Hoggart described once as being statistics provided by ‘The Department of Imaginary Statistics’!

    Obviously these things are genuinly hard to total up, but journos repeat them so often they coem to be taken as accurate – without anyone checking the source.

  • Dan

    David – a quick browse of these is informative when considering the stats:

    http://www.dft.gov.uk/rmd/project.asp?intProjectID=12077

    http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/

    http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/railways/

    and the second post here:

    http://railwayeye.blogspot.com/search/label/Station%20Usage%20Figures

    Rapid – good to see you back here – trust the Virgin staff on that train you mention were liberally distributing the Compensation Claim forms – 1 hour delay = reasonable refund on ticket price I’d have thought. After all – Virgin Trains would no doubt be claimign their compo from NR – lets hope passengers claimed theirs from Virgin!

  • Dan

    Christian – I disagree with Rapid on this one. You are right to pursue Virgin through the standard channels (taking the money twice is utterly out of order, although little different to leaving your ticket at home by mistake in the pre internet age but offering the reciept as proof of purchase and seeing how far you got!) –

    BUT this is your ideal chance to pursue it as the customer would have to – after being turned down by Virgin you should ‘escalate’ the complaint by simply referring it to Passenger Focus for them to try and mediate – see how they get on. Only if that fails should you then use your journalistic contacts to try to get it sorted.

    That would be a real benefit to the rest of us, finding out how PF can (or can not) genuinly help the customer. I know you are not a consumer affairs journalist – but it has the potential to be carried out in this way to see how the rest of us have to experience the system. At the end of your experience you should then write it up as a column (preferably to be read in a periodical with a large readership of Virgin product customers!)

    Also as Sean says however, if the travel agent issued you with the wrong code – they migth also well be pursued for the costs of their ‘service failure’…

  • Christian,

    “If I explained that i could sort it out on the train, he could have taken my word.”

    And how would showing the poor chap an email from a travel agency containing what you yourself point it is *incorrect information* constitute a “valid ticket”? What, exactly, were you planning to show him? A receipt from a company that isn’t Virgin Trains? An email, (which can be trivially forged)?

    You’re expecting an employee (who clearly doesn’t know who you are) to let you on the train *without* a valid ticket! This is precisely what this employee is paid to prevent! Complaining that the guard *did his job* is unfair.

    Your travel agency’s incompetence is NOT the guard’s fault. Nor is it Virgin Trains’s fault. Yet you persist on blaming them both.

    Under UK law, your contract was with the agency, not with Virgin Trains. The latter were perfectly within their rights to charge you for a new ticket; you’re supposed to get the refund for the original ticket from the agency, who created the problem in the first place. Why should Virgin Trains refund it on their behalf?

    Incidentally, the above is also why the PFI and PPP systems have proven an utter failure. The long chains of contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors means that you end up with similar finger-pointing and blame-gaming amongst the many parties to the contracts. Interfaces increase system complexity *exponentially*.

    If you, an industry expert, are having such difficulty understanding how a basic middle-man travel agency fits into the picture, it’s little wonder the lawyers and consultants who deal with PPP every day get paid so damned much.

  • RapidAssistant

    Fellas – when all is said and done on this one, Sean has nailed it. Passengers and railway staff are, at the end of the day just characters in this whole pantomime, and therefore neither is at fault (or blameless in acting or failing to act in a specific way) – it is the arcane SYSTEM that is to blame, with its countless points of interaction.

    Like any big system, whether it is a business, or a machine the more points of interaction the more potential for things to go wrong. It’s symptomatic of the current state of the rail industry in my opinion.

  • John Roberts

    @Christian Wolmar:
    Christian. Sad to say, as both a commuter and a business traveller on FGW’s HSS, the lack of ticket checking you experienced doesn’t surprise me one bit.

  • RapidAssistant

    Speaking of Virgin, they are doing a lot of these “Ask Richard” blogs on their various company websites, and last summer I entered my own question to the Great Man in the Virgin Money magazine. It went along the lines of:

    “You’ve taken a lot of stick over the years for getting into the railway business, do you have any regrets? And where do you see Virgin Trains heading in the future”

    A few months later I got a message from the magazine editor saying that my question had been selected for publication. Elated that I was that the Bearded One in the Wooly Pully had granted little old me an audience – I waited fastidiously on my souvenir copy of the magazine coming through the door. When it finally showed up last week I flicked through the pages to find that my question had been truncated down simply to:

    “Have you any regrets”

    ( you can find the response – typical Branson spiel here: http://uk.virginmoney.com/magazine/article.jsp?category=virgin&article=12883 )

    Oh well – it was just TOO good to be true wasn’t it?

  • Dan

    Rapid: Now doing that (reply) is REALLY spin! No politician would be allowed to get away with that IMHO!

    Amazing the gall of it – I think I once heard an interveiw or read something by Tony Benn about how annoyed he got with hacks changing the context of what he said – or quoting him out of context (I suppose it was on TV or Radio) – so what he said he did was to ask them how long the piece would be when broadcast (eg if it was 2 mins broadcast) he would then only give them a statement to fit that time slot – so they could not edit it or take it out of the context of a larger statement that they chose not to use. Not sure how easy it is to do this, or how to make it work in practice – but have to say it sounds like a good idea.

  • Christian Wolmar

    That’s hilarious Rapid. I would like to have asked him why he manages his companies in such a way as to pay virtually no tax in the UK, and yet has the gall to stand next to Tony Blair proclaiming how Virgin has invested in Britain’s railways – which was actually made by the Roscos, and not the TOCs. But then I suppose my question would not even have got as far as yours.

  • RapidAssistant

    For an even bigger laugh you ought to read the section on Virgin Trains’ in his book Business Stripped Bare – how he takes credit for everything from the design of the Pendolino/Voyager and spins it as if he bet the farm (quote) my biggest financial gamble ever (unquote) in finding the funds that paid for the trains – which is of course total flatulence as you say.

    He did score points however for knowing that the only part of the West Coast Main Line that’s actually on the coast is the short bit between Lancaster and Carnforth……

    In Sir Richard’s defence he has a justified rant against the DFT on how they squeeze the pips out of TOCs in the current franchises – maybe sour grapes because VT lost CrossCountry – but he did have a smidgen of a point.

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