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.

  • RapidAssistant

    The root of the Virgin example may be that, in my personal experience anyway, is that Branson’s companies tend to be generous and friendly in the early days when Branson is the one who is actually in charge, yet it’s all different a few years down the line when he hands the reins over to another chief executive. I’ve seen it already with Virgin Mobile which now is starting to impose some of the sneaky charges that O2, Vodafone et al have been doing for years…..yet in V.Ms early days it genuinely was the consumer’s champion.

    Same for Virgin Atlantic – early days it was the real rebel with a cause and people’s champion – and BA was most definitely the villain. Yet it got caught in the middle of a price-fixing scandal not that long ago.

    VT is the exception of course – which has been rubbish since Day One…..

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  • Stuart S

    I am an enthusiastic user of my Senior Railcard, and it saves a huge amount in expenses for the charity I am a volunteer courier for. In defence of Virgin Trains, they do offer an unbeatable bargain in that, for national Railcard users, any offpeak fare set by VT is valid on any train, regardless of timing. However, that’s no excuse for believing that forgetfulness equals fraud. What I do find ridiculous is that if you forget to carry your (valid) railcard, and still buy a discounted ticket (at a machine or online), you can be forced to pay the whole fare again, and have no means of getting a refund. All for the crime of being forgetful. There’s just no interpretation which can justify a suggestion of attempted fraud. It’s a random value fine (depending entirely on your intended journey length) for a lapse of memory. As one writer so aptly pointed out, even the police allow you a few days to show them a valid driving licence. It’s hassle enough to apply for refund. That’s sufficient deterrent for most of us oldies, without the threat of grabbing chunks of our pensions too !

  • Stuart S

    What I forgot to add is that Railcard holders are loyal railway customers, next in line to season ticket holders, and the Operators should cherish us, not regard our human lapses as potential fraud.

  • RB

    The Virgin experience seems typical of the erosion of the bond of trust that used to exist between the railway and the people using it: there’s a presumption of guilt about a passenger travelling without a valid ticket. Glad it wasn’t like this in years gone by when, in pursuit of those freight locos they used to turn out on passenger trains on Summer Saturdays, my travel plans would change by the hour sometimes and tickets were purchased from the guard en route. Never once, though, was I ever accused of anything illegal.

  • Simon T

    A friend recently got a £25 fine for not having an up to date young persons card…showed card at ticket office when was not spotted as being out of date, fare was around £2 return, but London Midland inpector on train fined he…she failed to get anywhere on appeal. Just the sort of example when leeway should be shown.

  • Matt

    I volunteered to work on the gateline at Waterloo last year as part of ‘customer service’ week.

    What I still found shocking to this day is the number of people who use excuses to get through the barriers having not had a ticket. A colleague of mine said that in his experience, 98% of people doing this were fare dodgers.

    I’m with the Virgin lady personally. There are a lot of dodgers out there, taking a free ride on the backs of fare payers.

    Before you so quickly rush to judgement Christian, you should try seeing things from the other side of the fence.

  • RapidAssistant

    Indeed there are instances where people are taking the proverbial mickey, Matt – but this needs to be balanced by an overall culture of goodwill as well.

    Some years ago I blogged on another railway discussion board over how me and 200 people were treated by Virgin when we were unceremoniously dumped at Carlisle, 100 miles short of home for a pretty lame reason (there were actually 3 conflicting stories coming from the staff), which was proven to be completely false and clearly a bare faced lie. I was immediately verbally attacked on said blog by someone who was clearly a Virgin employee and the jist of his respose was “f**k off and mind your own business because you know nothing”.

    Goes against the famous Branson culture of friendly service doesn’t it???

    Or on another occasion when I ran for my local train in Glasgow – the conductor was standing in the vestibule and SAW me run for it. Once on board he then tried to fleece me for a full fare return ticket instead of the cheap day return which I’d normally be entitled to. On this occasion I told him where to shove it, got off at the next station and walked the remaining 3 miles into the centre of town (luckliy it was the middle of summer).

    This is EXACTLY the sort of thing that we are talking about. This sort of “jobsworthing” does nothing for the railways’ reputation – and it’s high time ATOC did something about it. As others have said – a little bit of respect and goodwill goes a long way.

    It will be interesting what sort of horror stories come out of the woodwork on the forthcoming Dispatches on C4.

  • Matt

    Interesting points Rapid

    The first sounds like it was due to poor customer information in disruption, which has been highlighted before as a problem, and which the industry is remitted to resolve.

    The second, is well (how can I put this tactfully?), your fault. You’re not entitled to buy a discounted fare on board. It sounds like the conductor was trying to do his job – he/she doesn’t set the rules.

    I’m not saying the way you were dealt with was right – I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the approach taken.

    However, people need to be realistic – When ‘customer service’ is talked about, we’re not talking about a John Lewis environment. Railway staff have to deal with confrontation and aggression every day – it is understandable when this is reflected in some of their behaviour.

    Anyyway, if you think railways are bad, you should have tried the airlines (Aer Lingus especially) during the recent snow delays.

  • RapidAssistant

    Indeed Matt – my fault. I should have got out of bed earlier. That isn’t the point. When you are a regular customer who has probably spent a five-figure sum over his lifetime (a drop in the ocean to what a London commuter will pay over his/her career) – a little bit of courtesy goes a long way. In the exact words of that conductor I alluded to above: “not good enough”.

    And saying the railway isn’t as bad as the airlines – well that is an absolute cop out – you are comparing apples with oranges, and no better than the flatulence we hear from ATOC when they bang on about how average fares haven’t really gone up, and all the cheap deals that are available nowadays etc etc – they neatly gloss over the fact that walk-up fares have trebled in some cases since privatisation and the flexibility of the former Saver tickets has been reduced forcing people to either go on the expensive trains, or engage in a lottery trying to predict where they are going to be 8-12 weeks time.

    And therein lies the danger – people have become more and more indoctrinated into the “Ryanair Model” that they take hassle and inconvenience now when they travel as a given, so much so that we’ve learned to put up with it and just think we have to tolerate bad service whilst we let these companies shaft us at the same time. How did we get ourselves into this situation??

    It all boils down to the same thing – people wouldn’t make these mistakes and would lose their rag at staff a lot less if we didn’t have the byzantine fares structure that has evolved out of an unwillingness to provide the extra capacity when the country needs it on one hand, coupled with the hideous costs of doing the most basic of improvements on the railway on the other.

    But all too often there is there is this tendency in this industry to pass the buck onto someone else far too often. Ever heard of the Scottish phrase “it wisnae me” ?

  • Dan

    The problem seems to be inability to use sensible discretion. But like Matt says it’s unfortunate that staff get so much BS from scammers that eventually they become immune to it – and default to a ‘hard line’ when inappropriate – as has been said destroying company reputation in the process with some otherwise valuable customers.

    Last night coming through gate line at London Victoria 3 lads (20ish) were asking the sole member of staff on gate duty to be allowed out – I was behind them as my ticket would not open the gate automatically – the staff member asked why they did not have tickets and questioned them a bit, they had a story lined up that did not make 100% sense to me, and I strongly suspected they were committing fraud, but he gave them the benefit of the doubt and let them through – I suspect this was as much because a queue was building up and no other staff were there to help him sort it.

    But the industry is not customer focussed and I suspect staff are not encouraged to use discretion when on trains (inconsistent decision making – aka discretion – can make things hard for beaurocracies to deal with – eg oldie card holder forgets to renew, then forgets again, and says to guard ‘oh last time they let me off, would it be OK if you let me off this time’ puts staff in a hard position).

    What would be really sensible (and customer focussed) would be to allow railcard holders to be renewed by guard then and there on the train – so people could be excused if they paid up for the card immediatly – how hard would that be to both permit and organise?

    Of course the automation of ticket checkign (barriers) makes the process of checking things like this more difficult (as you don’t have to show your ticket) and also permits fraud like deliberate ‘over riding’. I notice that many staff now do not bother doing ticket checks on departures from gated stations – preumably they assume the gates have checked people anyway. Which is not correct.

  • RapidAssistant

    Indeed Dan, certainly the ability to pay for a Railcard there and then would be a great idea – or at the very least you could have a one month grace period where the card can be renewed by on-train staff to get around the situation described above, outwith this period it has to be done at a station.

    What makes my blood boil about these restrictions and their associated penalties is that it hits those in society who can least afford it. I recited this story before, but on one occasion I saw an NXEC guard relieve a student of over £120 full one-way fare from Aberdeen to London because her Railcard had expired by days. A few months later, I saw a young Asian tourist who could barely speak English get charged the full £100 fare from London to Edinburgh because she got on the wrong train. It sucks.

    But as you say the policing of these restrictions frequently goes all to pot – I’ve once managed to get from London to Glasgow without my ticket getting stamped at all because another Pendolino bound for Manchester broke down on departure from Euston and everyone on that train was told to pile onto the Glasgow one and change at Crewe – the resulting scene was like something you’d see in Mumbai, not London. Now that I’m following VT on Twitter, it seems like these sort of things happen a lot more than I thought.

    Makes you wonder how much fare revenue gets lost in these circumstances!

  • Dan

    Yes Rapid – good points – the VT situation you describe is just where you’d expect staff to check tickets – not to get heavy but to find people who needed help with lost connections and missed appointments and offer them any assistance required – but the dissapear and not face wrath of passengers plan is toooften what one encounters.

    Whereas that student will never forget that experience and probably never travel by train again (or not as soon as they could get a car) for the rest of their lives – losing thousands to the rail companies – but why would a short term franchisee bother with that. The Asian tourist, meanwhile, will probably never even come to visit the whole of the UK again!

  • Allan

    I also blame the customer service training TOC staff receive, each TOCs retail/service training differ from company to company. One TOC may be strict with rule A when another TOC may apply diffrences when required to rule A.

    I blame a non-compliant railway training environment. When we were BR the industry provided a basic course, tailored for each business sector (Network SouthEast, Regional Railways, Inter-City) but basically the course was the same nationally.

    I think that ATOC should set up a national course, with individual TOC inserts if required, and then new entrants into the industry who pass the course be issued with a ATOC industry standard certificate, which an individual can use to move from TOC to TOC and prove his standards, thus cutting out on training periods prior to taking up the same position with a new TOC for example.

    I initally was a clerk for Northern for 10years before moving to Southern, using the same issuing system and same ticketing guidelines, but had to attend a 4week course just to learn the same skills I already held.

  • Matt

    Rapid and Dan – I get the impression you don’t like the current system too much.

    The trouble, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lack of capacity: Turn up and Go works fine where there are lots of spare seats – but when trains are frequently full, TUAG needs to be discouraged to make most efficient use of available capacity. What’s the best way of doing this? Higher prices.

    So how do you solve capacity? Investment. Where does it come from? Well with the taxpayer input reducing to 25% in the coming years, it can only come from higher fares.

    So don’t blame the conductor – he or she is only trying to earn a living. They’re a victim of circumstance as much as you are.

    I am sure there is some scope for greater efficiency in railway projects, but the picture will remain broadly the same.

    And Rapid – there are a lot of similarities between trains and planes. In fact I would say the industries are virtually identical in many ways (with BAA = Network Rail) and comparing the way the two industries cope in similar circumstances can be very enlightening.

  • RapidAssistant

    Matt – I think you may have worked out by now that I truly detest the current system, the damage it has done and the human cost as well. It is rotten to the core, and I look forward to the day when it inevitably implodes on itself. Might not happen in 5, 10 or even 20 years, but it IS going to happen. Also, there is a pretty clear correlation between the few supporters of railway privatisation and those who are making a mint out of it.

    Don’t get me wrong – if we were sitting here with a privatised railway that was 100% free of government subsidy, was making a return for its investors who were ploughing billions into new lines, better stations and longer trains then I’d be celebrating in the wings with everyone else. I am all for the free market when it is – and this is the most important point – WORKABLE.

    But we don’t. We have this Frankenstein public-private railway that costs 2-3 times more to run than the fully state owned one we had before, with no clear or coherent road map into how it is going to provide for future transport demand at a time when oil prices and fears of pollution are going to drive people off the roads. Instead we have a railway that lurches from one crisis to another, is constantly under fire from its customers, the unions, its staff, and the media, and is now paying more in interest on its debts than it cost to run the whole of British Rail.

    There is one key difference between BAA and Network Rail. BAA has been a profitable company from Day One – and it spends its own money on reinvesting in its assets. Network Rail is only still in business because of the Treasury life support machine. It is essentially insolvent and if it were a normal business – time would have been called on it a long time ago.

  • Dan

    Hi Matt – not sure what you meant about my views on the current system in this context – I was commenting pretty much purely from a customer service point of view – but

    a) as I said, I fully undersatnd how conductors encounter so many genuine fraudsters and scammers in their work that it becomes difficult to give some people the benefit of the doubt (even without managment instructions to garner more fares income whatever the cusomer service cost) and
    b) why is there still some pretty poor basic customer care esp when things go wrong – all too often late trains result in customer facing on board staff ‘hiding in their compartments’ – no, not all, and not with all TOCs I’m sure – but sadly too often on the ones I use. I can only speak as I find.

    My other points were more structural ones – ATOC / TOCs could decide to issue tickets / railcards on board if they wished, I’m sure, perhaps under certain criteria, surely?

  • RapidAssistant

    Apologies for rant in #16 above – in the cold light of day I clearly had one too many G+Ts that night……..

  • David
  • Dan

    And what might be termed an unusual response from Mssrs Branson, Whitehorn and Co:

    “A Virgin spokesman said: ‘We will not be making any comment as this is an ongoing legal matter.’”

    No doubt had they been seeking to book a ticket to outer space, it might have been exchangeable?

    Although in fairness to the conductor on this one there is no suggestion (beyond the screaming headline) that the staff member was rude, unhelpful etc – it seems that the family did not like the consequences of their actions. Somehow I doubt the Mail will publish a follow up on the legal case.

    This is a more interesting one – the chap hired a Barrister after refusing to pay an upgrade – looks like he lost, but sort of ‘won’ in that the court awarded him his costs.


    The real victim is of course the industry as a whole – since stories like this simply confimr the prejudices of those who prefer to take their own car next time….

  • Steve B

    I too have a Senior Railcard. It expires at the end of April, but was printed with an ink that’s faded so much that it’s now unreadable. Luckily, I’ve never been asked to show it….

  • Dave Holladay

    In the bus industry there is equally a wide range of styles in customer service but I recall a presentation by Melvyn Hopwood of Trent Barton which is perhaps a good model, but will only work if the management style properly empowers and supports front line staff so that they make rational decisions when dealing with individual passengers rather than applying the rules with a blind indifference to any commonsense when a better ‘attitude’ will a) make the railway run better (no delayed trains whilst staff have blazing row with passenger etc), b) retain a happy customer (it costs apparently 10 times as much to win new customers as it does to keep existing ones – so foregoing a small pecunary ‘win’ will gain you a happy customer who will praise your operation AND return for repeat business)

    Bus drivers can at their discretion offer ‘this ride on us’ to passengers who have clearly forgotten their bus pass that day, and Trent Barton even allows for arrangements for a taxi if a journey goes pear shaped. The key to this working is in effective feedback and the development of those life skills that you gain from making a few borderline decisions – and you soon pick up those signals when someone is pushing their luck. The staff make these decisions, confident that the management stand by them, even when they decision might not be, in retrospect, the most appropriate one. Without that compact of trust we generate the classic, jobsworth, and unbending enforcer model employees and this behaviour in turn sours the relationship with all passengers, even those who merely observe the way staff behave towards fellow passengers who might make the most minor infringement of ‘the rules’.

    My own experience of a dire piece of customer service was on the overnight Scotrail service, and bears repeating. The ticket collection machine at Glasgow Central was not working, but a young bank worker had his booking details printed out, and boarded the train. The conductor refused to accept that the fault was with the train operators at Glasgow Central for failing to have a facility to issue the ticket booked and bullied the passenger into buying a standard single ticket, with his credit card, under the duress of having BT Police called and the threat to throw him off the train (recognised and customer friendly options available here could have included accepting the passengers details and arranging for him to collect the tickets from Euston on arrival, or even accepting the printed off sheet and getting the details confirmed en route). Instead the result was a departure some 15 minutes late. As there was no electronic facility the card transaction was crudely done by the old style voucher and the conductor scrawled ‘ticket’ as the goods purchased. The bank employee rightly (and reasonably) said that he wanted the details properly entered on the voucher.- and as a result the conductor refused to continue the transaction, and so at Motherwell the Police were called again, and we waited…. Other passengers rallied to support the banker and offered their contact details as witnesses, but eventually at around 01.00 the BT Police forced the passenger to leave the train, but showing scant concern for his welfare they then dumped him in the middle of Motherwell and went away. We found out from the victim that he had managed to get cash and find a taxi to get him home and a red-eye flight – but one which would still leave him late for his morning meeting, but far more upset were the track workers giving us filthy looks at Carstairs having lost over an hour of the night’s possession. And the conductor – got a ticking off for the late running train but not for the dreadful treatment of a passenger. Certainly one customer who won’t be using Scotrail again if he can avoid it.

    My niece also experienced similar behaviour when sold a ticket for Newcastle rather than New Cross Gate at Nottingham – the prices being practically identical. She was reduced to tears by the threats from the inspector (MML – National Express at that time) who somehow failed to have the sense to realise that the wrong ticket had been sold, but again other passengers rallied round and saw off the verbal assault.

    I suspect that a number of delays due to a passenger problem, and the resulting disruption (and costs) could be eliminated if only the staff realised that public transport is like newspapers – yesterdays paper has no value – so that provided there is no danger to those on board or outside the train, problems with tickets, and other ‘rules’ are best sorted out by keeping the train running to time, and sorting the problem out en route. I see plenty of examples coming through my current interest – when passengers seeking to cut up to 60 minutes (each way) from a daily commute (and free up car park spaces etc) are frustrated by aspects of the design and operation of trains which have more than half the seats empty, and even luggage bays and cycle spaces completely empty but a conductor decides its ‘reservations only’ delays the train and hacks off both the ejected passengers and those remaining on the train. Or in another tale, a threatened attendance by BT Police fails to materialise, whilst the train blocks the main line platform in a West of England location, and during the delay all the passengers get themselves and their luggage better organised. removing the apparent problem, a detail which could have been simply resolved within a few minutes of departure, and no delay at all.

  • RapidAssistant

    Funny that Dave – saw the exact same thing happen on the Sleeper once when I was on it – I didn’t overhear the conversation but I could infer that it was a homeless girl or a runaway clearly chancing her arm trying to stowaway on the London train.

    Same outcome though – she was thrown off at Carstairs (shame as it’s in the middle of nowhere after all public transport back to Glasgow has stopped running) and amazingly no BTP in sight yet she was blatantly breaking the law, unlike the poor chap above who was an honest customer who had simply made a mistake yet was made to feel like he’d stolen the crown jewels.

    We use technology now to determine whether a UK citizen with a passport is eligible to enter the country at immigration with no human intervention – surely we can use it to check someone’s authenticity to be on a train instead of relying on pieces of orange card???

    As Jeremy Clarkson would say – how hard can it be?

  • Flamingo

    I really don’t see what the problem is? Abuse of railcards is the most common ticketing irregularity I come across (closely followed by Advance tickets on the wrong train). It is the responsibility of the holder to check they have the railcard and it is in date before travelling.

    How can the average Train Guard tell if someone is telling the truth or a story when they say the R/C is at home, or in their other pocket, or “they had it at the ticket office, and must have lost it” or they forgot it had expired.

    I don’t understand the argument that says that the Railways should be responsible for reminding somebody to renew a railcard that it is in the passengers own interest to remember. People have to take responsibility for their own life sometimes. I’d say that this is one of those occasions.

  • RapidAssistant

    Well actually Flamingo there are two problems:

    A – the unecessarily heavy handed way in which these problems are sometimes dealt with – posts 12, 20 and 22 are examples of it. Like it or not these stories are tabloid gold to the Daily Mail and The Sun and their ilk, and well – only perpetuates the bad feeling towards your industry.

    B – the zero tolerance policies now adopted by the TOCs – why is an Advance ticket worthless if you get on the wrong train? In BR days you would be charged the difference on the full price equivalent. You’d still be stung for sure, but not as much as people get now.

    Well there is actually a third point – I won’t repeat it as it is in Post #10 above; if we didn’t have the massively overcomplex fares structure in the first place you wouldn’t have half of these misunderstandings. But as Matt jumped in and said – this is a consequence of lack of capacity, and moreover the cost of providing it – a reality which no-one seems to want to face up to.

  • Dan

    I would add to your point Rapid that any other business (and some might regard it as sharp practice) would offer r-cards on direct debit with auto renewal (with an age cut off for Young persons obviously) and on and on for senior r-cards – that way you’d never not have one if you were older, but the industry would still end up with a few quid from people who had reached an age where they really did not travel, or where they did not over 12 months recoup the value of the card. Of course one could opt out of that – but with a slighly lower price for a r-card bought on direct debit, or credit card continuous payment authority as an incentive – this could serve to be presented as good customer service.

    I expect R-cards (a legacy from pre privatisation which no doubt many TOCs would do without) are run by ATOC – I’ll not hold my breath they would be innovative enough to adopt the above, even if it were deemed a good idea.

  • With regard to Mr Wolmar’s initial blog I’d just like to confirm that we at ATOC do send out renewal reminders by email to every Railcard holder that has purchased through the online service and to many of those that have bought their Railcards from stations. These are usually sent 14 days before the Railcard is due to expire. We also send out postal reminders to customers who do not provide an email address.

    As Mr Wolmar’s experience shows, things can go awry and we have no way of guaranteeing that a Railcard holder has received their email reminder. For example, it could have got caught in their junk-filter or it could be that a Railcard holder’s address has changed, or they might inadvertently delete/over-look it, or they may not check their account regularly.

    So, while we do try to remind Railcard customers when their cards are about to expire, the onus remains with the customer to make sure that their Railcard is in date when they travel – particularly if they are buying tickets from remote sales-channels (such as ticket vending machines and web-retailers) with no staff to check or on-train when it is too late to renew.

  • That’s all very well, but if the railways adopted a policy of working with their customers, rather than thinking that they were all fraudsters – and I know there are some – then they would adopt the kind of policies suggested by Dave Holladay above. Why, for instance, cannot a guard simply issue a renewal of the railcard – charging perhaps an extra £10 – rather than making the person pay a wholoe new ticket for what is often an error. I like Dan’s idea, too, of automatic renewal facilities. The present system is so clunky and 20th century.

    And why, ATOC, does the practice continue of making people buy a whole new ticket when they are on the wrong train rather than taking into account the amount they have already spent. Its all a question of attitude. It is time the train companies changed the fundamental attitude, even if it means a few people may get away with a bit of mischief.

  • RapidAssistant

    Following on from all the discussions about ticket fraud and the like, ATOC members are always harping on about the mysterious “£x-millions lost” when justifying the various rules, penalties and the installation of gates and all the rest of it.

    What has puzzled me is how can they possibly know what the true figure is, when surely if all ticket fraud and freeriding was detected they’d be not only be able to deal with it, but accurately quantify it?? A bit like all the other creative accounting that goes on in the rail industry I suspect.

    After all, if someone gets on at an unmanned station with no or broken ticket machine, onto a conductorless train and then gets off at an unmanned station who’s to know how many people get a free ride????

  • Stuart S

    Mr ATOC still doesn’t explain why a loyal customer who has mislaid his (valid) railcard, and paid the full discounted fare should be penalised ! That customer has already saved the Operator significant costs by using the almost ubiquitous ticket machines or by booking online. There has to be some recognition that now most tickets are issued by a machine, human checks at the point of purchase are a rarity. The customer-provider relationship has changed, and it’s about time that Operators recognised that. If all the ticket machines at my home station of Basingstoke (at least 8) stopped functioning, there would be a queue out of the door, across the road and halfway through the adjacent shopping centre. I travel regularly, and habitually put my railcard in my shirt pocket. Occasionally there is a shirt muddle (like discovering a rip or dirty patch) that disrupts my routine. Then there is a genuine danger that the railcard is left behind. The process for me at the station is almost totally done without thinking- buy ticket from a machine, buy paper and coffee, go to platform. I don’t say to myself ‘can I see your railcard sir?’ ! I can see that some older lags might lend their cards to equally villainous old mates, but I’d be happy to to pay the difference between the discount and the full fare, if only I had the right to claim it back in full later. I would be happy to provide id confirmation. My driving licence even has an up-to-date mugshot and my home address! Just to repeat my earlier statement. A person who has forgotten their (valid) railcard is only guilty of a temporary lapse of memory. They have already paid for the card, and paid the fare at which they are entitled to travel.

  • Stuart S

    A gremlin got into the above post. The smiley arrived from nowhere and the bit after ‘Basingstoke’ should read- ‘(at least eight) stopped functioning…’

  • Percy

    I notice Trent Barton get a mention in this thread and deservedly so, they are a quality bus operation and their customer service as a rule is fantastic.

    As far as the franchised railway is concerned, its been with us over 15 years now and in terms of customer service the big transport groups that dominate the operations are simply light years behind retail giants such as Tesco when it comes to customer service furthermore all the self serving excuses they and ATOC make on their behalf wont change that, only a change in their customer service culture will . I know all sorts of excuses are offered up as is the case above where Matt says that he’s worked on the ticket barriers at Waterloo and the vast majority are fare dodgers. I’ve worked on ticket bariers and many people are dodging but many people make simple mistakes as they have genuinely been offered the wrong info, have made a mistake or dont understand the railway, the knowledge we take for granted and obvious they as a casual user from outside the industry do not know, (the railway is a complex operation). I remember 26 years ago a Man Picc guard excessed a group of pensioners going to Devon as they had got on the London at Macclesfield and not the Cross Country service which was behind, the London was out of course and had arrived at the time of the Cross Country. His reasoning, they do it all the time as they like going via London, Sorry pensioners dont like carrying their suitcases to Euston Sq and getting the circle to Paddington and then an Inter City 125 to the West Country when they can ( in those days ) get on a direct Inter City 125 that took them all the way without changing. The guy concerned just loved getting his excess pad out and making a bit of commission by hiding behind a myriad of rules and regulations while enjoying a sort of bureaucratic power trip. Unfortunately this type of railway employee and this backward customer service culture are still with us and the responsibilty for this lies at the top with the railway mangement who, unlike the big high street retailers, have failed to move on.

    Mind you Ryanair is pretty, unflexible, I wonder if they employ redundant BR revenue protection officers as consultants.

    All this said there are some decent, customer focused people on the railway, people capable of thought, people who if you put them through the bacon slicer wouldnt have the words First Group or Virgin Trains going through them like Blackpool goes through rock.

  • Well, firstly we don’t think all customers are fraudsters! Neither do we treat them as such. What we’re talking about is a situation where a customer is travelling on discounted tickets with an expired Railcard.

    For obvious reasons, travel on an expired Railcard in general is classified as a type of fraudulent travel; so it is un-surprising that if one talks to a member of staff about the subject in general they might refer to it in that light. That is different from saying that every person with an expired Railcard intends to defraud.

    It is important to remember that staff will encounter many people who are travelling fraudulently. Flamingo makes this point above. To press it further, colleagues in Revenue Protection tell me that (after ticketless travel and “adult on a child ticket” evasion) Railcard-related irregularities are the third most common reason they have to stop people.

    Railcard-discounted tickets open gate-lines, and (being in date) have a good chance of passing a cursory ticket inspection when they are used without a valid Railcard. Remote sales channels which rely on the customer to check their Railcard make purchase of these tickets extremely easy. A degree of good-faith is already shown by TOCs in offering unrestricted Railcard discounted tickets through TVMs and online channels, something that is worth remembering when evaluating the attitude of staff when they are presented with an expired Railcard.

    So, what of the scope for staff to show discretion? Well, it is there to a point – the East Coast guard demonstrated it. One needs to recognise that each TOC has its own operating circumstances and culture – so there will be differences. Generally the places where TOCs prefer to show discretion is in their Customer Service Centres, where staff do not have operational responsibilities to contend with.

    Generally though, if a customer does not have a valid Railcard a new full price ticket must be paid for. This is not only a deterrent to people who intend to defraud, it is also a reminder to those who might otherwise forget. This also addresses Mr Wolmar’s other question concerning travelling on the wrong train.

    If a customer is travelling on the wrong ticket there is always a chance that they will complete their journey without paying the correct fare. If a customer is no worse off for having tried this – that is, if it costs them no more than it would if they had bought the right ticket/Railcard in the first place – then there is no consequence to their taking a chance on travelling on discounted tickets/the wrong time train. This is why the current policy is in place.

    On the point about automatic Railcard renewal – this has much to recommend it, and we have market researched the option in the past. At the time, it ranked low among customer’s priorities, but it is something that we will continue to consider.

  • Dan

    At least ATOC are contributing to this thread – which is a) good to see and b) reflects the quality of discussion here

  • Percy


    And their replies speak volumes about how they are Light Years behind the major High Street retailers in terms of customer service.

    I like this piece below in the above ATOC reply.

    “A degree of good-faith is already shown by TOCs in offering unrestricted Railcard discounted tickets through TVMs and online channels”,

    They consider they are doing the customer a BIG favour by letting you buy your discounted ticket online and then bring it together with your railcard when you travel. Thank you ATOC thank you very very much say all the customers who can make other travel arrangements and go somewhere else with their discretionary money.

    The Train Companies do not seem to understand retailing or maybe those that do the retailing side of things arent writing these replies. This, We are doing you a big favour letting you travel with us and you are on probabtion even if you have a valid ticket mentality somehow has to be purged from the railways if its to be a truly dynamic, entrepreneurial and customer focused service industry.

  • yes, couldn’t agree more Percy – they just don’t get service culture and the whole notion is that we, the customers, are out to commit fraud.
    The point about misuse of railcards is surely that most of this is accidental – many examples can be quoted. To call it fraud is rather like suggesting it is fraud if you don’t put enough money in the parking meter.

  • SteveBrissel

    A penalty fare is indeed just a penalty. It does not compensate the TOC for the shortfall in the fare which has to be paid. Instead it penalises the traveller who has to pay the full fare, even if he/she has already paid a lower fare. Proper compensation would be for the TOC to require the traveller to pay the balance of the fare. Recently, when I was returning from Paddington, the train announcement confirmed that those with invalid tickets would have to pay the full single fare to Bristol TM (£84.50). That’s a hefty fare to pay, and then face the tombstone rear of the seat in front, in coaches which are often less than clean……. Oh for a change from FGW!!

  • Percy

    Steve, I’ve made a few journeys West on FGW to Cornwall in last few years and something doesnt feel right. I’ve found myself looking for that defining moment of revelation when I can really hit the nail on the head about what has changed on this wonderful route and how it has become so sanitised, corporately faceless, rudimentary, basic and somehow unfriendly. It then struck me that First Group has achieved what British Rail in its near on 50 year rule had never succeeded in doing. It has suceeded in crushing the spirit of the Great Western Railway.

  • Ian Raymond

    Well here’s an interesting one connected to customer service. Travelling through Chester a few weekends ago, now lamentably a gated station greatly hindering access to facilities, the barriers didn’t like my ticket, as often happens.

    Unforunately, the one member of staff was deep in a discussion with a lady who had forgotten/ lost / been given the wrong ticket (it sounded deeply complex and I’m not sure either way as to the veracity of her story). But more importantly, there was only this one member of staff on the barriers this Sunday evening, and would he let me or the other 30-odd souls in a similar situation past by manually inspecting our tickets? No: “If machine won’t let yer past that’s yer problem – I’m dealing with this fare doger.”

    It took some 20 minutes – yes, 20 minutes later he was still arguing – before he grudgingly allowed the growing queue past. Result, a missed bus connection and a very expensive taxi fare.

    Would ATOC like to comment on what level of customer service was satisfied here? Or even dare to defend the gating of station which for the majority of honest users are nothing but a damn nuisance? Don’t argue ATOC, we don’t want far dodgers but nothing beats effective on-train inspection. This “I don’t care” attitude is sadly more prevalent than I can EVER recall in my 40 years, during which I have travelled from end to end of Britain time and time again, and is the main reason for finally taking driving lessons. When I pass the test, I will not be back.

  • Percy


    Its interesting that the original concept of removing of ticket barriers took place place under the Thatcher Government of the early 1980’s. Back then the Conservative Governement linked BR pay rises to the implementation what they saw as productivity gains, such as flexible rostering of traincrews, driver only operation of trains and open stations ( no ticket barriers ) with the checks happening on the train. Like the other ideas open stations eventually happened, the barriers went and the Government of the day led by the Iron Lady hereself held this initiative up as a victory over the old slow to change, out of date British Rail that perpetuated out of date working practices that dynamic thrusting private companies would not.

    How ironic that with the private companies now operating our trains they have gone back to what Mrs Thatchers people saw an old out of date and inefficient working practice that only a state dinasaur would employ.

    I must say I have had a few bad experiences due to the barriers not being there in the 1980’s – 90’s when leaving Glasgow Central late on Sat night heading south. Once the barriers were not there anymore undesirable elements would manage to stray onto the train and if they kept their heads down and didint kick off before Motherwell then you were stuck with them and their antics for over an hour as you whizzed through the dark, deserted and stationless borders to Carlisle where the BT Police would haul them off. This is one situation where I actually would have welcomed a ticket check taking place before people were allowed to board the train.

  • RapidAssistant

    Yeah Percy – equally nothing to stop them piling on an ex-London express when it gets to Motherwell – BR interestingly never designated it as a set-down stop only, Virgin and GNER only started to note it as such on timetables a few years ago, but it is seldom policed in my experience – as you say Fri/Sat evenings a lot of people take advantage of it and usually get a free non-stop ride into town. Train manager is usually too busy holed up in his ‘office’ – same is true for Watford Junction.

  • Dan

    Well, barriers are no substitute for proper on trian checks as has been stated above – but many staff seem to think they are (note how after intro of barriers in your area you will find on train checks decline on departure from said station – well that is my experience anyway), yet I’d like to know what extra on train duties staff have now got which means they can’t check tickets as before?

    The issue of a ticket check should be about ‘customer facing’ / ‘can I help you service’ – ie checking for people who can’t speak english who may need to be told carefully where to change, reasurring irregular passengers that staff are about if they are needed, taking note of people with heavy bags or a parent on their own with 3 little ones to get off at a particular place, who might need a few minutes more warning and an extra 2 or 3 seconds dwell time at their station. I rarely get the sense that this is what it would be about.

    At ticket lines the worst experiences I find are when private security contractors staff the barriers (I came across this at Man Picc once, not sure if still done that way by Northern?) – their knowldge of ticket validity is so poor that the service provided would be useless. Would they really know a railcard was required depending on a certain code printed on a ticket?

    Ian – interesting and valid points – I’d have thought some risk averse H&S reg would require at least 2 people on the gate – how were people wanting to go the other way (ie to get on a train) expected to get through? Did they have to wait 20 mins too?

    Anyone know what goes on at the much vaunted TOC customer service academies….

    Maybe these people can tell us….


    The smug comments about BR tell you a lot about their arrogance, actually….

  • RapidAssistant

    re. TOC customer service (or lack of it) – maybe collectively we should get Mary Portas in to sort them out

  • Dan

    Aha – and here (found on an official virgin website in a comments forum) is an example to the results of that great customer training from the customer perspective – it speaks for itself – bear with me it’s worth a read:

    “Dear Sir / Madam I’m not normally moved to write letters of complaint… Unfortunately, I think it’s fair to say that this has to be one of the worst customer experiences I have ever encountered … let me explain. What should have been an enjoyable trip up North to visit my parents on the weekend of their 40th wedding anniversary was slowly turned into something where Virgin Trains, after what I imagine is a simple everyday error have almost gone out of their way to insult, lie and fleece me for as much money as humanly possible.

    Firstly: I went online to book my tickets, travelling from London Euston to Crewe on Friday 14th August, returning Sunday 16th August via the same route. Stupid me! Somehow I entered the wrong dates, don’t ask how, I just made a mistake. I didn’t realise my error until I turned up at the platform gate about 10 minutes before the train was due to depart. I was, very fairly I imagine told by the ticket inspector that due to the dates on my tickets being wrong that I wouldn’t be able to board the train.

    Actually that’s wasn’t how it went, the ticket inspector was unhelpful, seemed more interested in discussing the weekend’s football, and said ‘dates are wrong mate’ and then went back to the football.

    Secondly: So! I’m not on the train, I go to the Virgin ticket office at Euston Station hoping to find someone who can help me as it’s a big weekend, I want to celebrate with my parents, this is where I meet Surrinder. Now let me clear, I don’t believe in being rude to people, especially when they are only doing there jobs so I should point out that I was incredibly polite throughout to Surrinder even after he sailed so close to offensive.
    • He informed that the tickets were non-refundable and that it would cost me in the region of an extra £160 to get new tickets, something he almost seemed to enjoy.
    • Told me that this was the best price he could do and almost refused to give alternatives until pressed.
    • Chucked my tickets back at me after I explained to him that I had made a simple mistake online telling me, and I quote that ‘people make mistakes and sometimes people have to pay for their mistakes’.
    Those were some of the highlights of a 5-minute conversation I had with Surrinder. He is possibly the most unhelpful individual I have ever had the misfortune to meet, he’s done more damage to the Virgin brand in that 5-minute conversation than I would ever had imagined possible…

    when I collect my return tickets I discover that the train back on the 16th is on a London Midland train and will take over 3.5 hours, over double the normal train time. So I think it’s fair to assume that if I book my tickets on a Virgin website, speak to Virgin Customer Service advisor and receive emails signed off ‘Kind regards • Virgin Trains’ that I’ll be travelling on a Virgin Train. Not so!

    I ring Virgin Customer Service again but I’m told that there are no Virgin Trains between Crewe and London on that day due to engineering works, fair enough I think although later I discover it is a lie, you have a full service running that day. Finally: One-way ticket from Crewe to London Euston – £59.95 After discovering that you are running a full service and I can travel at my leisure, this is where I speak to Sanjeev Shukla. Sanjeev can do nothing, he is a powerless supervisor, he suggests I may be able to get a refund on my return ticket and suggests I buy a new single ticket at Crewe station. This I decide to do less spend 3.5 hours on a train. So there we have it, £180 in tickets, two upset parents, one ruined weekend, over an hour talking to Virgin Customer service ….. It seems that Virgin trains think that all their customers are cheating, duplicitous scoundrels out to get one over on you, I can assure you this isn’t the case, maybe some just act this way because of how they are treated.”

    That’s how the customer sees it – and lets remember we all know this person should probably have bought an off peak walk up ticket (old Saver type ticket) been able to hop on any train they liked, when they liked, for less hassle – and they’d have saved money over this shenanigans too.

    What we see is an inflexible industry, with inflexible regs, enforced by staff not permitted delegated powers of discretion so treu customer focus is long gone.

    Oh yes, and David Cameron gave a speech the other day saying he wants all the other public services run by these sorts of companies….

  • RapidAssistant

    It is all getting pretty predictable these stories, and they have a certain sense of deja vous to them. Reminds me of my post a year and a bit ago when I wrote a personal letter into Virgin Money Magazine to the Bearded One about his involvement in the railway business…..the core of the letter was edited out probably before he even saw it…..

    Wonder if anything like this ever is brought to his attention?

    In fact I remember once on a current affairs show (might have been Panorama) in the early days of Virgin Trains when the whole WCML upgrade was beginning to show signs of going pear shaped….Branson gave a private audience to the BBC and he abruptly terminated it when the interviewer deviated from the script and threw a bit of damning evidence he wasn’t prepared for…..it seems too many rail executives would rather not hear the truth of what is going on at the coal face, and enjoy the high salaries instead.

  • Percy

    Dan, Rapid, I dont think its unfair to say that their are actually two Virgin Trains, The one Richard Branson thinks he is running and the one on which his passengers travel and his staff work on. Mr Branson doesnt really get involved in any hands on day to day running of his train operations, its not his business style, he prefers to buy what he sees as the best managers available ( remember Chris Greens return to railways ) and give them the room to get on with it without treading on their toes all the time. I would guess he doesnt get to see or hear all that is going on at the coal face but just gets an editied version. I also think its also worth considering that Stagecoach stumped up the majority of the hard cash for the Virgin Rail franchise when it bought out all the venture capital in late 90’s giving some of it back to Virgin Group so it had a nominal control / majority. Essentially we are travelling on Stagecoach Rail.

    There is also a massive disparity between the wages and conditions of onboard staff Drivers, Conductors and Catering to that of station and booking office staff who are nowhere near as well compensated both in terms of renumeration or conditions.

    The drivers at Virgin have their mouths stuffed full of gold as Virgin Trains management realises they have power to stop the company functioning, wake up time may be just around the corner for them though if the current franchise changes hands. I remember meeting an old BR loco inspector once at Crewe a few years back, he is long retired now and we talked conditions, wages etc, He said a lot of supervisors had returned to driving for Freightliner his current employer at the time as the money was brilliant in comparison to BR, then he laughed and said, its not as good as Virgin Trains though, ASLEF runs them and they dont care as its all government money they just give union what they want, Its like the old BR but with wheelbarrows full of cash at the end of the month.

  • Percy

    I’ve just remembered Virgins original sales pitch at running railway services, back in the mid to late eighties they briefed the newspapers on how Sir Richard was going to revolutionise rail travel by running a luxury IC125 to Scotland. I think it was the Telegraph or maybe the Guardian that ran with it giving it a good spread and including a cutaway diagram of the Virgin Inter City 125 that had an onboard Jacuzzi Spa, a Hairdressers Salon, etc, How what we eventually got differed so much from this promised land, what we have is even nowhere near what was published in the railway press a few years ago when CGI images of the proposed Pendolino 1st class layout showed something more opulent, sumptious and private than what eventually made it to the rails. I notice the onboard entertainment has quietly disappeared and that onboard catering is now – like Arthur Daleys Car Lot – a cash only business. MInd you to be fair can you imaging how much water would come splashing out of a Pendolino Spa as it takes the curves in the Lune Gorge.

  • RapidAssistant

    Percy – in fairness the reason why they binned the onboard entertainment was because the system (allegedly) interfered with the wi-fi that they had to introduce to compete with GNER/NXEC/East Coast. It was no great loss anyway since half the time it was never working, and no-one bothered with it.

    The stick that Ken Bruce used to get from Terry Wogan on R2 for doing his pre-recorded show as well……the celebrity interviews were actually quite good when you did “tune in” – except for the interruptions whenever the train crew were making their all too frequent announcements – usually just when it was getting to an interesting part of the interview and you’d hope that the show could complete the loop again so you could hear what was said before your journey ended.

    Agree though on how much the service has deterioriated – remember the first time I went on Virgin 1st Class 5 or 6 years ago, there was a wide ranging menu, and the drinks trolley was well stocked to the point where I think I slightly staggered off the train at Euston (!). Last time I was on it a year or so ago, the breakfast and snacks were somewhat cost reduced and you were strictly rationed to two tipples on a Glasgow-Euston journey. I’m surprised they haven’t binned their free restaurant service by now….

  • Dan

    Good posts Percy – what the press shoulod really do is re -run those puff peice spreads witht he CGI images against a few pictures taken on board now of the real thing. But the Bearded on is teflon coated PR wise so it never seems to happen – the press (inc the railway press) would do us a favour by doing such things.

    Mind you, some of these issues are not found (in general in my expoerience) on Stagecoach Rail EMT or SWT – so there must be some ‘cultural’ issue at VT – not that of course all VT staff will be as described – far from it.

    Rapid – this is what you always get when you include food / drinks etc inthe price of the ticket – the incentive is then to reduce the offer both in terms of qaulity and quantity. It’s a great shame that East Coast will now go the same way come May.

    Far better to knock a bit off the price of a ticket and let people buy good quality food if they want it.

  • RapidAssistant

    Dan – given how impossibly hard it is to get the lowest level (even the second lowest) Advance fare on 1st Class Virgin these days in comparison to EC it’s hardly a valid comparison. But overall the two are really difficult in service terms to make a fair comparison anyway:

    Virgin’s flat fee of £15 for Weekend First upgrade is far better value than East Coast which is goes up in increments to £25 if you are going the whole length of the line. Virgin, also have attended service on weekends which equals what was offered on the EC. EC were however operating the restaurant on weekends, whilst Virgin only do basic tea/coffee/biscuits etc.

    On balance really if you just want to travel in 1st to get away from the riff-raff and take the eating and drinking out of the equation then Virgin is the better deal IMHO; but much depends on how cheap the Standard Class fare you bought in the first place was.