James Daley

By James Daley

My battle with First Great Western chugged onto the Small Claims court mediation service today - a first for me as a consumer, and something of a right of passage for me as a consumer rights campaigner.

You can read all the background to my case in a blog I wrote a few weeks ago. But in a nutshell, I made a mistake and ended up on a train to Cardiff without the right ticket in my hand. I had paid the correct fare - and had evidence to show for it - but even with the benefit of hindsight, First Great Western refused to refund me the additional £109 that I was forced to pay when the guard discovered me without the right ticket.

Disproportionate penalty

I took my case onto the Small Claims Court because I know - as any level headed human being does - that a £109 penalty is just not proportionate or fair for an honest mistake. But before you get to court itself, you get one last chance to clear things up amicably, with the help of a mediator.

The mediation service is excellent - and makes perfect sense. It's designed to save the court from disputes that could have been handled with a bit of reason and compromise. Somewhat disappointingly, you don't get the chance to slug it out toe to toe with your opponent. Instead, everything is done through a middle man who calls you, then calls them, then calls you - until you come to an agreement. Or don't - as the case was for me today.

When I first made my complaint to FGW, the most they were willing to offer me was half of my additional £109 fare. That still left me paying a £54.50 penalty for an honest mistake. In today's negotiations, they upped their offer by about a tenner. But now that I'm in the hole an extra £25 for court costs - I would still have ended up almost £70 out of pocket from this whole experience.

Burning through money

I simply don't understand FGW's reason for digging its heels in. While it may be true that by the letter of the law they have a right to keep the £109 - and the court will determine whether they were right in a few weeks time - the cost to them continues to rise as this dispute drags on. To date, they have had to assign one of their legal team to fill in the forms for the Small Claims Court - and then spend over an hour on the phone to a mediator. I'd hazard a guess that they will have burned through my £109 penalty in lawyer costs during the  filling of the forms, and by now they will have spent a couple of hundred more pounds at least.

By refusing to make a reasonable settlement offer to me today, we will now head to court where they will take up a few more hours of their lawyers' time. So by the end of the whole episode, they'll be close to having spent £1,000 - maybe more - just to fight an individual passenger who made an honest mistake.

I could understand their tenacity if they felt that it was important they sent a clear message to other passengers. But what exactly is that message? It would seem to be "We're willing to fight tooth and nail to hold onto any money we're legally owed - even if it's at the expense of our honest customers".

And given that I'm a columnist and blogger with a fair amount of national profile  - as a PR exercise, this is about as bad as it gets.

Some inconsistencies

FGW's actions are also a little inconsistent. If they really believe that I broke their rules - and that their rules must be enforced - then why offer me anything at all? If they are making the offer because they see my point - which I know they do - then why continue to fight all the way to the courts?

This exercise is not entirely without risk for me, I should say. If FGW win in court - which they may well do - the court is within its rights to order me to pay some or all of their costs. And given that they're using professional lawyers, that could be expensive.

But if that's what it comes to, the world has surely gone mad. The headline will become "First Great Western customer forced to pay £1,000 because he printed out the wrong ticket".

The irony is that behind closed doors, the train companies admit that the rules as they stand are not fair. And they are talking to consumer groups (not mine I hasten to add!) and government about how they might be changed. All of which only makes FGW's pursuit of me ever more puzzling.

As it happens, FGW is not the only company that operates in this way. Many train companies take a similarly rigid view of the rulebook. But FGW's actions have galvanised my opinion against them - and ensured that their name trips off my tongue as one of the least customer focused companies in the UK.

Whether or not I lose in court, I'll win the moral battle, the publicity battle, and will do everything I can to help Passenger Focus get the rules changed. If FGW change their mind before our court date is set, I’ll happily take their call.