James Daley

By James Daley

I finally had my day in court against First Great Western today - challenging them over a decision to charge me £109 for an honest mistake that I made back in February. It was ludicrous that this ever made it into the courtroom. I won't bore you with the full details of the story again - but in short, I accidentally didn't download my outward journey tickets on a trip to Cardiff, and the train company refused to refund me for the additional £109 I was charged by the ticket inspector, even after I could produce evidence that my outbound tickets were never downloaded from the machine.

The details of my story are somewhat incidental. The point here is that I - like thousands of other people a week - made an honest mistake. I don't blame the ticket inspector for failing to show any discretion (although that would have been nice). But I do question where the moral centre is of a company that is ready to fight a customer all the way to the courts to defend their right to penalise honest customers for mistakes.

In the three hours while I waited for our case to be called at Wandsworth County Court this morning, I learned quite a lot about FGW. They are the only train operator in the country to have a specialist in rail law on their books - and they appear to be more litigious and confrontational than just about any other train company. Someone senior in the organisation had clearly made the call to fight me all the way to the end because they were exasperated by the blogs that I've written over the past few months. So here's another one.

And the winner is...

And the outcome? Well, that depends on your point of view. The judge stuck with the letter of the law, which states you must produce a valid ticket when asked - end of story. But in financial terms, I'm down £109 plus £25 in small claims court fees, while First Group are down around £1,500 in their lawyer's costs - even after taking into account the £109 additional fare that they got to hang onto.

So in boxing ring style, I feel able to declare myself the true winner. And by going all the way to court, FGW merely ensured that I would continue to keep this cause close to my heart. They may have had the law on their side, but if 99% of people think the law is not fair, and wasn't designed to be applied in this way, I'd suggest it makes them look like monsters to dig their heels in as they have done.

As I see it, they've spent £1,500 sending a message to forgetful and clumsy people everywhere that they're willing to do whatever it takes to profit from their mistakes. But I'll leave you to make up your own mind.

Time for a change in the law

As I wrote in a previous blog, this speaks to a real problem with the National Rail Conditions of Carriage as they currently stand. Unlike other contracts, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations cannot be applied to them. Worse still, there's no competitive mechanism to stop train companies behaving as FGW have. I've traveled on FGW trains multiple times since February. If I had a choice, I'd never set foot on one again.

So, I'm now setting up a meeting with the Transport Minister to find out what it will take to get these rules changed. Sadly, a new version of the Conditions of Carriage has only just been released - and there's no new provisions to insist train companies treat their customers with some dignity. So let's take the fight to the next stage.