Railway service culture

Interesting contrast on two journeys recently. On East Coast, a very friendly conductor asked me for my Senior Railcard – yes folks I have one – when I showed hm my ticket. I said that he was the first conductor to ask for it in ove a year and a half and, in fact, my card had run out for some of that period and I had taken journeys without realising it. He said that this happened a lot and that people forgot to renew. I pointed out that although I had ordered it online, as most people do, there was no automatic reminder, which would hardly take any effort to do.

He agreed, and said that he never made people buy a full fare, but merely charged them the extra that they would have paid without the card, and if it was only a couple of quid, he did not bother. But he did say there was a bit of self interest as he got £6 for every renewal that was made as a result of his check.

On Virgin, there was a superficially equally friendly conductor, a middle aged woman who gave very clear and precise details about ticket availability. We were on the Mark 3 train out of Euston, a real pleasure, in contrast to the ghastly Pendolino, and she specifically explained this was a ‘spacious train’. Indeed. She too, asked for my Railcard and when I showed it to her, I said that it had once run out because I had not received a renewal reminder.

Oh yes, she said, ‘there’s a lot of fraud around cards’ ‘Fraud?’ I replied ‘That’s hardly the right word. Its just people forget and they do not get reminded which would not take much to do’ ‘Well its fraud because they are cheating on their tickets. And it would be a lot of administration to send out reminders’. I let it drop, as clearly we were not going to get anywhere, but there is an important point here. Most people who have forgotten to renew their Oldie cards are not deliberate fraudsters. Its a question of attitude. If Virgin is really training its people to suggest that we are all fraudsters out to cheat Beardie Rail of a few quid every time we travel, the company has a serious customer relations problem.It is about as far from Branson’s public image as a friendly entrepreneur aiming to do his best for his customers as it could be.

The contrast between the two conductors could not have been greater. I am not saying, though, it is always like that  – older readers may remember I had a bad experience on the first day that East Coast was taken over by the government but I did have a particularly awful Virgin conductor in the past too. So its 2 -1 to Virgin for bad experiences in the recent past, so far.

  • Dan

    Thanks Rapid – useful views. You’d think there were plenty of cheap Virgin 1st Advance fares given the imbalance of stock they specified (ie surplus provision of 1st class seats) – clearly not.

  • RapidAssistant

    Regarding CWs tweets this last day or two – based on my own experiences with VT this last couple of years….kind of why I seldom use them nowadays – my hunch is that they are trying to milk as much money out of the franchise as they can in case they lose it next year….

  • Percy


    Yes your right re the onboard entertainment was out of date soon after it started. I ony listened to Ken Bruce, he cant have been cheap though as cant the other celebs and then there is all the PRS Virgin would have to pay for music content on these programmes, maybe the advent of mp3, iphones, portable DVD etc has been a blessing for VT really. I cant understand why First Great Western persist with their TV carriage, now that was out of date when it started. – Do you remember circa 1985 Inter City refurbed First Class Mk3s, I think it was when they made some of them into Pullmans complete with names, they had a telephone box in one of the carriage ends, it even had a West Coast Route Map giving advice on where a bad reception would be experienced, Kilsby Tunnel, Tring Cutting, Etc. Another inovation that was soon out of date. I also rember, I think it was Midland Mainline incorporated a fax machine into or near the buffet car on their hsts in the late 90’s, obviously they hadnt heard that an explosion in email & text messaging had already started, it was soon gone,

    With regard to rationing of your spirits from the 1st class trolley. Virgin staff who came over from BR at the begining of the franchise were all given first class passes – I’m not sure if this was a temporary mental aboration on Mr. Bransons part as staff joining since have had to travel Standard – anyway you’ll be pleased to hear that the original staff who still have their first class passes are I’m informed no longer allowed a single morsel of hospitality whatsoever, so itsa definate policy running through all first class users. Also I’ve heard rumours that VT staff are now jumping from managerial positions in onboard catering services into retail and operations when positions become available for internal transfer, they obviously know or suspect what we have discussed here, that come the new franchise, it will be a much leaner and less opulent onboard 1st class service, tea trolley and ham sandwiches all round maybe. Im still not sure why VT catering is currently a cash only business though when much smaller operations such as the Cross Country Tea Trolley accept all major cards, I can only imagine those odd 50p Visa Debit transaction charges really do add up and its worth operating like a Polish Plasterer or a Second Hand Car Dealer with cash in your hand at the end of the day.

    Finally talking about the internal Pendolino 1st class design being somewhat different and less opulent than what was originally shown in CGI drawings released to the railway press. I see the gentleman that desinged it Paul Priestman from a fim called Priestman Goode ( you can find them on google, they seem mainly to do airliners so no surprise why Pendolino is as it is ) is very proud of the Pendolino, so much so that last year he put out his own pitch for how a new UK TGV style train should look. It just goes to show how different we are as individual human beings. If I had designed the inside of a Pendolino, I would be 1) extemely embarassed & 2) keeping very quiet about it. But he has won design awards and I havent, so hey what do I know. Lets hope that if he does get the gig – he has learned from his mistakes with the Pendolino.

  • RapidAssistant

    Percy – the 390 interior is fine as long as you are in 1st, cos at least you have the luxury of windows that line up with the seats….unlike Standard. While the “free” booze/food is fine when you can get it as a leisure traveller – you have to sympathise with the mere mortals doing the slog every day that are subsidising it with their season tickets.

    Do remember InterCity WC had a Phonecard (!) phone at the end of the buffet car circa late 1990s, and I think Virgin and GNER kept the service in the early days before mass ownership of mobiles.

    For my final bit of reminiscing of the day…. the Mk 3 Pullmans – unfortunately I was only 8 years old in 1985 and the furthest I’d been on a train up until that point was the 30 miles from Glasgow to Ayr……on a clapped out 101 because the wires were in the process of being put up in those days. I can still remember my sense of excitement being taken to Central Station for the first time when I was about 4 or 5 and seeing the HST for the first time ‘in the flesh’ – Jimmy Savile’s train in original “flying banana” livery!

    Never occurred to me I’d be using it as a grown man in my mid 30s!

  • Dan

    I think the whole IC fleet had the phones in the buffet cars at one point – a sort of booth in the bit at the end of the counter (where the staff always chucked bags of rubbish during the journey that you had to climb over to use said phone – yes I recall trying to use them once or twice – I think I would have been a student then).

    Also 158 DMUs had card phones in the area between the 2 carriages (sort of near the combined cycle storage, toilet area) – I’m sure they were fitted from new and that was about 1988. Given many are only now getting desperatly needed full refurbs it was only about 6 months ago I noticed the bolt holes where said phones were located on an unrefurbed one.

  • Stuart S

    Going back to the original point of the discussion, and the last ATOC comment, I note the careful use of the words ‘Railcard irregularities’. The first two frauds mentioned : Ticketless travel and adult using a child ticket are fairly obvious frauds, except there are some cases where getting a ticket is somewhat challenging. In those circumstances, the traveller should really try to find the guard/conductor as soon as possible. I don’t have much sympathy with the expired Railcard problem. Being forgetful is no excuse for travelling on discounted fares to which the passenger is not entitled.( Travelling until a conductor asks for the card (a rare thing for Senior Railcards)). When challenged, did Christian say ‘I would like my previous x offences to be taken into consideration, and here are the backpayments I owe’ ? I agree that there should be some effort to remind Railcard holders of forthcoming expiry dates. It’s not a market research issue. It’s common sense. It would help reduce the hassle for railway staff, and cut out episodes of deep embarrasment/cost for passengers. That is customer service, and a no brainer win-win.

    If each card had a unique number, which is then a mandatory entry for online purchases, connected to a database of expiry dates; that would kill off some more ‘frauds’. I cannot think what to do with ticket machines, but barcode readers, magnetic strips or non-contact plastic-card readers (like Oyster?) could do it. As I said before, the customer/provider relationship has changed, and the TOCs should catch up with the consequences.

    Further, I would like to know how ATOC can make any estimate of how many ‘lost/forgotten’ railcard episodes turn out to be fraud. As there is no way of getting overpayment returned, the passenger never has an opportunity to show that their mistake was just that. I assume that when recorded, all Railcard incidents are counted in the ‘fraud’ column.

    Lastly, I wonder why advance purchase tickets are 100% non-refundable. Is it just a bad habit brought in from the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair without any further thought given to it? Those folk who get caught out by mistakes or changed arrangements (It’s happened to my family due to illness) can feel really badly treated, and may be lost as future customers. There’s already a £10 charge for refunds on flexible tickets. All that is needed is a higher charge for Advance ticket refunds.

    I once had to rearrange a trip on Eurostar. Because I had bought non-refundable tickets, I just binned them and paid up for new ones. They lost a chance to resell our seats (it was at a busy time) because all seats are reserved on that ‘pretend airline under the sea’. SNCF at Gare Du Nord, were more than happy to refund and rebook me on their trains.

  • RapidAssistant

    As I’ve said before Stuart, one of my bugbears with the ticketing system is that although the front-end has been replaced it still has remnants of the old APTIS system developed by BR at its heart – which is 30 years old after all….I’m no expert on the subject but isn’t it time the entire ‘engine’ of the system is overhauled to implement the latest electronic ticketing methods….after all I used an Android phone app the other week to check in for a BA flight at Heathrow T5 (and get me past airside security, and at the gate!) and not one piece of paper was involved anywhere in the process.

    I think that the rationale (or one of them, at least) behind the no-refunds policy on Advance tickets was that those people who buy walk-on tickets often can’t get a seat because of those who have pre-booked. Therefore if the empty seats are occupied by an Advance passenger on the wrong train then it is even more unfair on those who have paid full whack. It’s a pretty lame excuse though, I’ll admit.

  • Percy


    The 158 phones, brilliant piece of nostalgia, yes I remember them well, I doubt they ever saw much action, more PR than anything.

    Rapid. Glasgow in 85 and your post above regarding aptis. I remember going to Glasgow Central sometime in the early 80’s to see the new computer seat reservation system that was about to go or was already live, For some reason at Glasgow Central it was already up or nearly up, not sure if it was a trial or something. Anyway from something so up to date and ahead of the rest of the BR network I then remember going into the departure board room above the shops, it was a big manual operation, hundreds of destination signs were posted by a team of railmen, very impressive to see this manual operation from the steam age still going on especially as we were in the 1980’s and everywhere else of any size had one of those automated flip over deparutre boards by this time.

  • RapidAssistant

    Yes Percy the cloth boards they used to put up on the windows at Glasgow Central…..even to a 7-year old in the mid 1980s I remember thinking this was something out of the dark ages……mind you I always used to be scared of walking underneath Heilanman’s Umbrella as a kid because it wasn’t floodlit like it is now.

    Funny you should mention it as I was talking with some colleagues at work today about a brief student job I had in the Central Hotel, and I remember being taken down to the laundry in the sub-basement level which is takes you into the undercroft of the station beneath the platforms – pretty amazing it always felt like you were going down a salt mine!

  • 8699

    nob head get a life

  • MrOrganist

    I had a ticket from Blackpool to London which turned out not to be valid (because I had made a mistake when I booked it).  I only realised this when I arrived at Blackpool North Station.  The Northern guard let me travel to Preston, but didn’t rate my chances with the Virgin Train Manager.  I toyed with the idea of buying a fresh ticket but decided to try contrition.  It worked!