10 February 2015
A masterclass in bad customer service
Last week, I wrote about how I was charged an exorbitant penalty fare of £109 due to not having my ticket on a First Great Western train. Personal moans and groans can be a bit tiresome in blogs, but I think that there's a broader point of principle here that needs to be challenged - so I'm going to fight this one all the way to the courts and will write about it step by step on this blog.
My story is not an uncommon one. I had a booking for my journey but, due to a cock up, I didn't have the orange ticket when I got on the train. I was able to show the ticket inspector the email proof that I was booked on that very train, in the very seat I was sitting in. But as he had no way of verifying this, I had to buy a new ticket at a price of over £100.
Although I made a mistake, First Great Western should not be allowed to profit from it. While perhaps I deserve a slap on the wrist - maybe a £20 fine - the £109 is simply too much, given that I had proof of my booking. For many people who are hit with these penalties, the fines are even higher - and it's a sum of money they simply can't afford.
Train companies' right to levy these fines is etched in some ancient bye-laws. But I don't believe they are a fair contract - and as such could be challenged under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations. If customers can provide electronic proof of purchase, then there is a failure on the part of the train company in not having the technology to verify the booking reference. The bye-laws were written to allow train companies to penalise fare evaders - and were written at a time when people couldn't book tickets online, and end up without their paper ticket. But in today's world, where most long distance tickets are booked online, train companies should be able to verify bookings by simply being presented with the reference number.
First Great Western's response is somewhat idiotic, so I've printed it in full below. It's a masterclass in clumsy customer service. I've given them one more chance to offer me a full refund. Otherwise, it's off to the small claims court.
Thank you for your email of 4 February 2015, which has been referred to us from our Digital Community Manager. I was sorry to hear how your original email was rejected, as I appreciate how frustrating these things can be. Our in-box continues to receive the various emails from our customers, so I’m unable to explain what’s happened here. But, the important thing is that your correspondence got through to us and we can talk about what took place.
It was concerning to learn what happened when you travelled from London Paddington on 4 February. I empathise with how utterly disappointing it would be to have to pay for anything else, and I really am sorry that you feel so let down.
Ultimately, only the actual ticket is valid for travel. This is consistent with our Buy Before you Board policy, which also includes collecting the necessary tickets prior to travelling. It’s all in-line with the legal stipulations as established by the National Rail Conditions of Carriage.
I do realise why you’d look to our Train Manager to accept the likes of your booking details. I regret that this just isn’t a position our crew are in from on-board the train, as they don’t have the means to access anyone’s booking information. Even if they did, there would still remain legitimate data protection concerns regarding the appropriateness of our staff accessing the personal data of someone who’s essentially the customer of an entirely independent commercial entity (e.g. the Trainline). So, the solutions to the scenarios aren’t always easy or straightforward.
Rather, the only thing our Train Managers are expected to base their actions on is whether the passenger in front of them holds a valid ticket or not. If they do not, they are quite right to charge for the likes of a new fare.
When we advise customers to collect their tickets prior to boarding, we do not say this to be somehow officious. We need to be clear that, under the railway bye-laws, it's ultimately an offence to board a train without being able to show a valid ticket. Any passengers that do so are not entitled to Railcard discounts, off-peak tickets or any other special terms. Instead, they would be liable to the full new fare, fine or more formal legal proceedings. So, we do have to recognise the seriousness of anyone found to be travelling with an invalid ticket.
I would wish to assure you that we’re certainly not unreasonable in these matters. Had our Train Manager applied the wrong ticket for instance, or the station ticket machine had some sort of technical fault, then we wouldn’t hesitate towards covering any erroneous cost. Indeed, we genuinely welcome being allowed the opportunity to put right a genuine mistake on our behalf.
This said, the crux of this matter remains that you didn’t collect your pre-booked ticket just when it was needed. As such, the new ticket was correctly charged, and this is not something for which First Great Western can be held (financially) liable.
This being said, as your original ticket seemingly went unused, then it would be eligible for a refund (subject to the original terms of purchase). However, as you booked this with the Trainline, any refund request for the original fare would be have to made via them.
Whilst no refund or compensation is due, we do recognise when we’ve been given an opportunity to turn things around – and to demonstrate our own genuine intentions. As such, I’d be happy to consider a discretionary award, towards half the cost of the new fare at £54.50.
In order to make any such award we would require the original ticket that was charged to you on-board the train, confirmation of your Trainline booking reference and confirmation of your correct postal address. Our own details are shown at the top of this email, and it’d be helpful if you could please quote the case reference number XXXXXXX in any reply. This would allow us to make the necessary arrangements for you.
Thank you again for letting us know what happened, and for allowing us the chance to clarify our own position.
Customer Relations Advisor