25 May 2015
If banks treated their customers like train operators do, they’d be fined millions
Stories of people being treated badly by train companies seem to be two a penny these days. This week's horror story comes courtesy of Southern Trains - which operates the line between London and Brighton (amongst others). It's common for services on its lines to become very busy - and the latest heartless tactic employed by its inspectors has been to fine anyone who ends up standing in First Class without a First Class ticket.
As ever, the rules and regulations are in Southern's favour here. First Class cabins are for people who have paid for First Class tickets - and the companies are quite within their right to fine people who are in the wrong part of the train without having the correct ticket.
But while this may be the letter of the law, it is certainly not the spirit of it. The "Conditions of Carriage" - which all rail passengers are bound by - are quite rightly designed to protect train companies from fare dodgers, and give them the necessary powers to deal with any culprits they catch. But being edged into standing in First Class because a train is so overcrowded is hardly a punishable offence. The sensible thing for a train company to do in these circumstances is decommission First Class and allow anyone to stand in there - and by good measure, anyone who has paid for a First Class ticket should be given some kind of refund, to recognise that they're no longer getting the peace and extra space that they've paid for.
First Great Western also on the list of worst offenders
Followers of my blog will know that I've been embroiled in a not dissimilar row about abuse of power with First Great Western over the past few months. When I accidentally collected my return journey tickets from a machine at Paddington, but not my outward ones, I was fined £109. In spite of appealing to FGW's better judgement, they continue to refuse to refund me any more than half of this fine - in spite of the fact I could prove I had a valid booking for the train I was on.
I'm the first to admit I made a mistake, but £109 is simply not a disproportionate penalty. And given that I'd paid my fare and could prove it, I don't think any penalty is appropriate. After a failed mediation session with them, I'm now waiting to be allocated a date at the Small Claims Court - a battle which I may well lose, but which will have cost FGW hundreds of pounds in legal fees, just so they can preserve their right to profit from people's mistakes.
For me, this is not about the money - it's about the principle. But for others, it's absolutely about the money. Many people already break the bank finding the cash to buy their train tickets. It now costs £289 for a peak return to Edinburgh from London - three times what you might pay to fly. And with fines that relate directly to the underlying fares, people are getting hit with penalties of £100 and more every day - sums of money that many people simply don't have.
Let's regulate train operators like banks
If train companies were banks, this kind of behaviour simply wouldn't be acceptable. In the world of finance, we have a set of principles which go by the self-explanatory name of "Treating Customers Fairly". But the rail companies are not bound by anything similar.
It's all the worse because there is no real competition in this market. If I want to travel from London to Cardiff, I've got no realistic choice but to travel with First Great Western. In any competitive market, the kind of treatment that I'd received would have left me determined to never use them again. But I don't have any choice - and that's why they - and the likes of Southern and others - can get away with treating their customers with contempt.
There may be some hope, however. Passenger Focus - the excellent consumer body which represents lobbies for fairer rules for train customers - published a great report earlier this year, which lays out these kind of problems in detail. It's called "Ticket to Ride" and is worth a read if, like me, this kind of stuff gets your blood boiling. I'm told that ministers are persuaded by a need for a change in the rules - and that train companies are starting to realise that the tide is about to turn.
Until it does, however, we're stuck with train companies profiting from our mistakes and their own failures. If you want to join me outside the small claims court to protest against this mess, then let me know. It'll be in Putney in a few months time - and feels like a perfect opportunity for a public expression of outrage.