Train operators seem to revel in making life difficult

Train travel  is becoming more of a hassle almost daily and much of it is down to the way that the train operators delight in making life more difficult for their passengers. I was a consultant on the recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Train journeys from hell which was screened on March 21st but initially I was reluctant to appear on it because the title, which had been set in advance, suggested this was just another programme only interested in ‘dissing’ the railways.

Indeed, in some respects,  the starting point was unfair. There have been lots of improvements on the railways: new trains, lots of refurbished stations, much better information systems, Oyster pay as you go and so on. However, when you start looking at the industry from the outside, as the researchers were, it soon becomes apparent that the railways come across as the least customer-focused industry in Britain – well, apart, possibly from airport operators but that’s another story. The programme focussed on aspects such as fares and overcrowding but there are numerous others that could be used to reinforce the point.

The fares system is a particularly bad industry own goal. The level of walk on fares has reached ridiculous heights. In the programme, the presenter, Richard Wilson, of One Foot in the Grave fame, buys a return ticket from Euston to Manchester which costs a staggering £279 – ‘I could get to New York for that amount’ he mutters and is even more shocked when he is told that it by no means guarantees him a seat. The airlines have long learned to treat their premium paying passengers by offering extra facilities but this notion has passed the railways by.

The operators say that few people pay these top fares and that plenty of good deals are available. But only to people in the know who are prepared to book in advance. A senior rail manager, who worked for the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising in the run up to privatisation,  confided to me recently that rather than regulating the saver fares – now called off peak – they should have imposed controls on the walk on peak tickets. Off peak fares would, he said, be much more market determined as operators are desperate to fill empty seats at those times while the peak fares are more monopolistic as people travelling at those times have no choice.

There is, too, a major problem in the way that the fares system is operated. At times the rail companies seem to set out deliberately to make it difficult for people to understand what fare they should pay. The websites are incredibly complicated, restrictions on off peak unclear – what other industry sells an item which says ‘validity, see restrictions’ which is completely meaningless and does not even tell you where to find the ‘restrictions’ – and the variety of tickets is perplexing. Some conductors – by no means all – seem to be deliberately out to catch people out:  the programme has an example of tourists been surcharged over £100.

One example of how train travel is becoming more difficult  not covered in the programme is the installation of barriers at major intercity train stations. The latest crazy example is King’s Cross, which is in the midst of a £400m refurbishment, and yet some bright spark decided this would be a good time to install barriers. In fact, much of the time, they are left open or are left, unbeknown to passengers, in ‘all tickets accepted’ mode. And when they are in use, the queues delay passengers while actually doing little to protect revenue, their ostensible purpose, because on train ticket checks seem to have been reduced. These barriers cost £1m a pop and you could get a lot of extra staff for that.

All this is only set to get worse. Train operators seem to be impervious to the needs of their customers and yet seem surprised when the railways are criticised. Of course a lot of good things are happening on the railway and there are plenty of examples of good customer service, delivered by caring and helpful staff. There is a fabulous  example in an article by Edward Enfield, Harry’s dad, in the latest Oldie magazine where he compliments a particularly helpful Southern station officer who went out of his way to sort out a problem  – take a bow Ade Akinniyi.

But more often than not, the ethos is wrong. That was brought home to me when I had a conversation with a very friendly Virgin train conductor. She had asked for my senior railcard, which was unusual, and I said so, mentioning that last year I had let it go out of date by mistake as no one had reminded me to renew it. ‘You were lucky’, she said, ‘as that’s fraud’. I tried to suggest that it was an error, not deliberate and therefore ‘fraud’ was far too judgmental. She was having none of it: ‘It’s fraud and we get a lot of it’.

I let it go, but her attitude was down to poor training, which has allowed the notion that ‘the customer is always wrong and trying to cheat us’ to take hold. That’s why we get these terrible stories of unlucky train travellers, who end up being charged large amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of pounds, for having made errors in understanding the very complex ticketing rules.

The train operators are pressing for longer franchises, and more freedom, Ministers have realised, belatedly, that this might be a recipe for increased complaints and are dithering over how to reform the franchise system.  Train operators are not necessarily happy about being given extra freedom. One expressed concerns to me privately saying that he was worried that operators would take on new longer franchises and if they got into financial difficulties in a recession, would be forced to cut back services and would get the blame for it, while ministers sat on their hands. Freedom, he realises,  is a double edged weapon.

Nothing, though, in plans for franchise reforms suggests that the Department for Transport is trying to change the ethos of train operators and make them more passenger friendly. Quite the opposite. The government is likely to try to squeeze every penny out of them, and we will get more unfathomable ticket restrictions, more barriers, fewer friendly staff on station platforms and cutbacks in services such as catering and ticket offices. Expect plenty more programmes like Train Journeys from Hell .

  • RM

    How appropriate that your article was sandwiched between adverts for 25% discounts at Hertz rent-a-car! Way to go?

  • Rhydgaled

    Walk on fares may be high, but they’re also fully flexible. I think passengers should have a choice of single and return fixed ‘Specified Train Only (unless it’s late)’ tickets (currently only available as advance singles) and the current off peak and anytime flexible tickets. These three types of tickets should be available on the day, and on the train on routes where on-train purchase is allowed. If bought in advance, all these types of ticket should get cheaper and the earlier you book the cheaper it should get. The walk-up anytime fares would still be at least as expensive, but it would be much eaiser to obtain a reasonable fare and a fully-flexible ticket would be cheaper if booked in advance. While anytime and off-peak fares are valid for quite some time, there should be options for cheaper versions of these tickets which lets you use any train on the outward journey on a pre-specified day and any train on the return again on a pre-specified day, rather than the return any day within….. tickets which is generally charging you for far more flexiblity than you actually need.

    Privatisation was stupid, BR’s subsidy was much lower with far fewer passengers and far cheaper fares. If BR was charging these fares today, we could have had far more investment, or an almost subsidy-free railway network.

  • John

    ‘I could get to New York for that amount’

    Is a classic comment – yes you can probably get from London to New York for that but only if you book well in advance – today’s walk on fare for a flight to New York is £1300+. The rail industry is no different from the airlines as they both operate the same type of yield management systems. Few people who are paying for the fare themselves buy walk on tickets for long distance trips.

    As regards the comment about forgetting a railcard being fraud the same attitude applies with the London congestion charge where if you forget to pay you are subject to a huge penalty. Sadly fraud is widespread on the rail network and ticketless travel endemic in parts but there are ways of policing the system more sympathetically to those are genuinely confused and forgetful.

    I agree customer service is sadly non-existent on many parts of the rail network but that was also the case in BR days and it is not easy maintaining good morale in a business when everyone is sniping at you.

  • Music Fan

    One improvement would be to put the Fares Manual online and make it accessible to the public. Then someone would probabaly develop a website which interpeted it for the public and everyone would be better off. At the moment you can get it for £15 from the Stationery Office but it is in some sort of non-Windows format so that you cannot even cut and paste the figures into other material. And it doesn’t appear to inlcude the information about ‘permitted routes’ which is a key part of udnerstanding the fares system

  • RapidAssistant

    OK then – on a purely per mile basis; if a walk up return from Euston to Manchester (390 miles) costs £279, then the London-New York flight (7000 miles) should cost £4970 – an EIGHTEEN fold difference. Not even a business class return to the Big Apple costs that much. In fact, it’s almost Concorde money!

    So even a walk up fare to New York is actually cheaper purely on a per mile basis. OK – this gets highly subjective without a detailed knoweldge of the costs, but it does say a lot even on laymans terms:

    A Pendolino costs £11m
    A Boeing 777 costs about £100m+ or so at list price

    A transatlantic pilot won’t get out of bed for less than £70-80k a year, and bear in mind you need two of them, versus one inter-city train driver at around £45k – say.

    I haven’t talked about track access charges vs airport charges, or kerosene versus electricity…but it does beg the question – how the hell these figures all pan out and how profits can actually be made!

  • Anonymous

    I have often wondered about that, too, Rapid. There’s more – think of the cost of the flight attendants, the insurance, the food – still free on long haul – the maintenance and so on. Just the sheer capital repayment of aeroplanes must be massive. How on earth do they do it? And why are the railways so much the opposite – after all the marginal cost of carrying an extra passenger is virtually zero. Memo to self – I must do a Rail column on this soon.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps that is why you’d be hard pressed to find a major legacy flag carrying airline that isn’t either state owned (partially or fully), or has had to be bailed out by their respective governments at some point in their history.

    Contrast that with Ryanair and Southwest Airlines – two of the most profitable airlines in the world which have never received a penny of aid – perhaps it just goes to show how unsustainable the traditional full service model actually is. Another story for another day….Simon Calder’s book “No Frills” is a fantastic read on this subject.

  • Anonymous

    mmm. that’s partly right, but still does not explain why long haul can be profitable and often is these days at prices that make a nonsense of rail fares.

  • Paul Holt

    This might be apocryphal, but some children asked Richard Branson how to make a million from an airline. Branson’s reply was “start with a billion”.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose when you dig deep enough, aviation is a bit like the history of the British railway system on a much bigger scale – in the post-war period alone look at the number of airline mergers and bankruptcies and takeovers that have happened, not to mention the fact that there were once several manufacturers of large civil aircraft – now there is only two. Analogous to the consolidation into the Big Four…..

    Equally, when you look at the entire global aviation industry as a whole – it probably loses money, and couldn’t function without governments pumping in money to run the fixed infrastructure. And just like the railways where you have little pockets of activity which are highly profitable (freight; long distance inter-city) – the same is true for the airlines (BA for one covers up its loss-making domestic and European network with the massive profits from long haul business class and its air cargo division).

    For this reason it always makes me chuckle when you hear the pro-privatisers of the railway pointing to the aviation industry as a good example of how privatised transport can work……if only it were that simple!

  • Anonymous

    Friend of mine was arriving in King’s Cross a month ago from the Edinburgh train, and the train arrived into the gated half of the station, at exactly the same time the platform got called for a departing East Coast service – so you had two express train-loads of people simultaneously trying to get through the barriers in opposite directions – the resulting ‘people gridlock’ meant that they had to just open the barriers, which sort of defeats their purpose.
    This was just one isolated case, but I guess it happens a lot, and this is before the other half of King’s Cross gets gates as well.  Sadly, the last major station without gates – Glasgow Central – is about to be spoiled by the infernal devices.