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 .

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