Rail companies are being urged to introduce automatic compensation across the whole network for passengers whose trains have been delayed or cancelled.
Sharing testimony from commuters who say their relationships and mental health have suffered following months of disruption on Britain’s trains, the consumer rights body Which? said it was time for the government to “sort out this mess”.
Passengers complained to Which? about excessively complex procedures for making claims and little awareness of their rights to a refund. Research from the body suggests that only 33% of passengers who are entitled to compensation actually apply for it.
Alex Hayman, a managing director at Which?, said many train companies made it too difficult for customers to claim their money back and there were “no significant technological barriers” to overcome to bring in automatic payment for passengers who had bought their tickets electronically for an identifiable journey.
Under the current system, different operators offer refunds in different circumstances when services are delayed or cancelled, with only a few offering an automatic refund on a ticket bought with an electronic payment for a specific service. Virgin became the first rail company to introduce an automatic compensation system in 2015.
“Many of the sums that we’re talking about are potentially quite small on an individual basis and therefore people don’t engage with the compensation system, and they might not think it’s worth it,” said Hayman. “But if you aggregate that up over a year of commuting it can be fairly significant sums, not just for the individual but for the train company itself.”
He said the rail industry was such that there were no “meaningful alternatives” for commuters, so they could not “vote with their feet”. “It provides very little incentive for the train companies to change,” said Hayman.
“The government needs to urgently sort out this mess. If they are to have any hope of restoring the faith of passengers, automatic compensation must be introduced as a bare minimum.”
The testimonies collected by Which? include tales of passengers routinely missing their children’s bedtimes, arriving late to work and suffering stress and mental ill health as a result of unreliable service.
Sarah-Louise Brown, 35, works in Leeds and is a Northern passenger. She said that when it came to getting on her train to work it was “it’s survival of the fittest”. “I have seen some awful things. I have seen people pushing and shoving because obviously, everybody wants to get home or get to work,” she said.
“There have been platform changes at the last second and if you’re not physically able to run, you are not getting that train.”
Brown said she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of trains that were on time in a month. “I haven’t even bothered asking for compensation because there’s no point,” she said. “You have to put in a per journey request and I would be putting in a request every single day.”
David Harding, 35, a Great Northern passenger, said he had moved to Hitchin in Hertfordshire because it had such good rail connections to London, but that he now dreaded his commute to work.
“If this was a shop-bought product, I would have been offered a full refund by now. As it is, I have to spend additional time out of my evening attempting to reclaim my risible refund,” he said.
Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, backed the call, arguing that privatisation of the trains had fragmented the rail network, preventing a coherent system for ticketing and compensation.
“Making a jumble of private train companies work together is like herding cats, and previous attempts to do so have wasted tens of millions of pounds,” he said.
“Private operators exist to pay dividends to private shareholders or the governments of foreign states and therefore have no incentive to implement improvements that don’t generate greater profits, even when doing so is clearly in the interest of fare-payers and taxpayers.”
He added: “We need an integrated network with the organisational capacity to roll out reforms, which will be achieved as the rail network is brought under public ownership.”
The Department for Transport said: “It is vital that services continue to improve and passengers are compensated fully for the disruption they have suffered. Govia Thameslink Railway, Northern and TransPennine Express have launched special compensation schemes, which will be funded by the rail industry, and we encourage all eligible customers to make claims.
“All passengers are also entitled to apply for Delay Repay compensation from their train operator, which is set at 15 minutes on GTR and 30 minutes on Northern and TPE.
“We are encouraging train operating companies to automate the process for making claims including through automated processes such as informing passengers of their right to claim via smartcards. Where operators have done so, this has resulted in a claims process that is very swift and simple.”