Our rail network is creaking. So is the system meant to compensate hundreds of thousands of train passengers whose journeys have been ruined. 

The agony of industrial disputes that have lasted more than two years in the south-east has been compounded by the disastrous introduction in May of new timetables across the country. Thousands of trains have been cancelled, delayed and abandoned for the lack of qualified drivers, causing passengers serious financial consequences.

Considering the rising cost of commuting, passenger goodwill has reached the end of the line. Annual season tickets for the most expensive commuter routes into London can cost up to £10,000 and a growing number of passengers in the home counties are joining the so-called “£5k commuter club”.

In the wake of MPs threatening to take action, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) has this week made an “enhanced” compensation offer to affected Thameslink and Great Northern passengers that could give some up to four weeks’ worth of free travel. However, to the dismay of transport user groups, this will only apply to season ticket holders — and it will not happen automatically. 

Other passengers have recourse to the Delay Repay system of compensation, which transport groups claim is not fit for purpose. And if train delays have caused passengers to incur further costs, such as taxi fares or fees for rebooking missed flights, while it is possible to claim compensation, the train companies make it very difficult to do so. Could the long-awaited arrival of a new Ombudsman for rail passengers this autumn make things any better?

FT Money examines the woeful state of train compensation, setting out passengers’ current legal rights and how to go about making a claim for a disrupted journey.

Off the rails 

Last Sunday, GTR launched its third timetable in two months in an attempt to provide more certainty for passengers who have been battling frequent cancellations, delays and overcrowding.

The problems are not limited to passengers in London and the south-east. On the same day, Great Western Railway advised passengers not to travel on its trains because there was not enough crew, blaming cancellations on hot weather, the World Cup final, signal failures and the fact that drivers are not required to work overtime.

“The stories we’ve been hearing [from passengers] have been absolutely heartbreaking,” says Neena Bhati, head of campaigns at Which?, the consumer group. “It’s not just that commuters can’t get home in time to put their children to bed, they have to leave so early the next day so they don’t even see them wake up. It is grinding people down on a daily basis.”

Forced into action by angry MPs, GTR’s “enhanced” compensation offer is limited to season ticket holders, even though data from commuter groups suggest that fewer than one-third of regular travellers use them. 

A survey by members of the Bedford Rail Campaigners Save Our Trains group found that 13 per cent had annual season tickets, 8 per cent had monthly and 6 per cent had weekly.

However, season ticket holders will have to wait until they are contacted — GTR estimates this will happen “from the end of August” — and even then, the onus will be on passengers to send in proof of their entitlement to claim. 

Govia Thameslink tweet this week apologising for further delays

GTR advises passengers to keep travel tickets and records of transactions as they will still have to provide these as “evidence”. 

Season ticket holders who think they are eligible for enhanced compensation but do not receive a letter or email face even longer delays. They will only be able to submit a claim after GTR has finished contacting season ticket passengers on its database.

The compensation process is just as convoluted for passengers without season tickets. They will have to use the Delay Repay system for claiming compensation on affected journeys — but there is mounting evidence that this scheme is not working in passengers’ best interests (see below). 

Furthermore, those taking earlier trains to beat the delays could be financially penalised, but have no way to claim compensation. 

Many passengers have been forced to travel at peak times to avoid missing flights, important business meetings or medical appointments — or simply to get to work on time. These earlier journeys can be up to three times more expensive, even if you split tickets to get the cheapest available.

GTR says it has three levels of compensation. “We process most claims within three days and give passengers every opportunity to resubmit their claims.”

Bim Afolami, Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, where commuters have suffered multiple train delays and cancellations, says those without season tickets should be included in the overall compensation package. “They have been offered some compensation, but I am asking the Department for Transport and GTR to look again at this. A more enhanced package would be fair and welcome.”

Repayment delays

Passenger groups say the existing Delay Repay scheme is not fit for purpose. Ironically, several rail companies have already admitted that the volume of recent claims will delay compensation payments. 

Typically, train delays of more than 30 minutes mean passengers are entitled to 50 per cent of the ticket price as compensation, rising to 100 per cent for delays of over an hour (the precise terms vary between train companies, in yet another quirk of the system). 

Two years ago, only 20 per cent of passengers entitled to claim compensation via Delay Repay actually did so; now the figure is up to 35 per cent. GTR could not say what proportion of its delayed passengers had claimed. 

The train company said that 83 per cent of Delay Repay claims had been approved — but this still means that fewer than 30 per cent of affected passengers have received the compensation they are entitled to. 

GTR told the FT that the Delay Repay scheme was sufficient for people who buy daily tickets, even if they travelled five days a week.

“Passengers should not have to jump through endless loops to get the compensation they are owed, especially after suffering the hassle of delays and being badly let down by their train services,” said consumer group Which?.

Many passengers never bother submitting a claim within the required 28 day deadline as they complain the bureaucracy involved is not worth it. GTR’s online form requires detailed information about disrupted journeys including departure and arrival times, plus a scan of the actual travel ticket (or receipt). Season ticket holders must also scan their photocard. 

If you failed to make a detailed note of your disrupted journey at the time, recenttraintimes.co.uk is a very useful website. The information on delays comes from Network Rail and goes back three months.

Yet having taken the time to submit a claim, many regular travellers report they have had claims rejected because the Delay Repay system is overwhelmed. Some members of the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters group have been told wrongly that they have reached the “maximum number of claims per month”. Others complain that legitimate claims have been rejected or delayed. 

Passengers without season tickets are angry that they will not be entitled to enhanced compensation, and must continue to battle on with individual Delay Repay claims.

“I’m disgusted that only season ticket holders are being offered enhanced compensation as we have all suffered such huge delays,” says Helen Patterson, a member of the Bedford commuter group.

GTR says that it also operates a scheme offering vouchers or a free ticket to people who suffer repeated delays — but to access this, affected passengers will need to muster the energy to write a further letter of complaint. 

“It’s time that trains were run for passengers, not rail companies, and as a bare minimum the government must urgently introduce automatic compensation for delays and cancellations,” Which? said. 

A game of consequences

Which? claims that transport groups have gone out of their way to avoid telling passengers about their legal rights when it comes to claiming for “consequential costs” arising from delays that were the fault of the train company.

Passengers who have had to pay for taxis or have missed flights, concerts or other events due to delayed or cancelled trains have theoretically been able to bring a claim under the Consumer Rights Act since 2016. 

However, until a successful campaign by Which? in March of this year, this entitlement was excluded from the rules that most train companies use, the National Rail Conditions of Travel.

Yet in June, Which? found that many rail companies were still giving passengers misleading information or refusing to grant compensation for the additional costs they were entitled to.

Mystery shoppers telephoned 26 train operating companies to ask if an elderly friend or relative was eligible for compensation when their train — the last of the night — was cancelled and they were forced to pay for a taxi. Twelve of the companies provided incorrect or inconsistent advice. Six companies wrongly said compensation was not available and five train company websites were also found to be incorrect.

“Our investigations show that far too often passengers are given the wrong advice about their right to claim for consequential losses when they have to dig deep into their own pockets due to train company failures,” says Alex Hayman, managing director of public markets at Which?

“Train companies must pay out on reasonable claims and give the correct advice, or face enforcement action. If the regulator fails to take action against the worst offenders, the government has no choice but to step in and stand up for passengers and their rights.”

Last week, the Office of Rail and Road Regulation (ORR) said it was reviewing how train companies were implementing the Consumer Rights Act to ensure that accurate and easily accessible information was provided to passengers. It said it might use its powers under the Enterprise Act to compel compliance. 

Sky-high claims

Claiming for a taxi journey is one thing — but the cost of a missed flight is another. GTR serves both Gatwick and London Luton airports. The FT asked if it had received — or paid out — any claims under the Consumer Rights Act for missed flights.

In response, GTR said it complied with the National Rail Conditions of Travel that allow passengers to claim for more than the price of their rail ticket. It allowed claims to be made within 28 days for any “loss not recovered under the industry fund process”.

The websites of train operating companies generally state that they deal with such cases according to the passenger’s individual circumstances. However, consumer groups say there have been no small claims court cases involving consequential costs to test when it is reasonable to expect compensation. 

For now, passengers can only go by the wording of the Consumer Rights Act, which says it expects train companies to operate their services with “reasonable care and skill”.

Broadly speaking, experts say that to bring a claim passengers would need to prove the delay was the fault of the train operating company (it is wise to make a note of the reason given in announcements such as “no relief driver” or “fault on the train”) and show that they had allowed reasonable time for their journey to the airport. They should keep evidence of any additional expenses, and make a claim as soon as possible. 

As the Delay Repay forms have not been designed for this purpose, it is better to write a letter of complaint to the train company stating that you wish to bring a claim under the Act, setting out the reason for the delay, full details of the disrupted journey, and copies of relevant receipts.

If a claim is rejected, passengers can contact industry watchdogs Transport Focus or London TravelWatch. While these bodies can investigate disputed complaints on behalf of customers, they cannot force train companies to take action if failings are identified.

Considering the uncertainty, affected passengers may opt to make a claim on their travel insurance instead. But there could soon be another way. 

Passengers ride on an overcrowded Govia Thameslink service between Blackfriars and East Croydon on July 3 2018.
Misery line: passengers on an overcrowded train from Blackfriars to East Croydon

A year ago, the government promised it would set up an independent Rail Ombudsman with statutory powers to give passengers a much easier route to compensation. This week, it announced that a non-profit body called the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman would rule on customer complaints about the rail industry from November 2018. A free service, it will cover rail journeys throughout Britain, and the ombudsman’s decision will be binding on the rail companies.

Campaign groups say that once the ombudsman is operational and producing reports of cases it has handled, it will be easier for passengers to work out what is regarded as reasonable. 

For now, there is growing evidence that passenger complaints are getting stuck in the sidings.

Rail companies receive 500,000 complaints a year, but only 11 of the companies surveyed by the ORR managed to deal with 95 per cent of complaints within the required target of 20 working days. 

And while 47 per cent of passengers on Cross Country’s lines were happy with the way their complaints were handled, this figure fell to 18 per cent for Govia Thameslink and Northern Rail.

“People are telling us they feel frustrated and let down, but also powerless as they feel nobody is taking responsibility and standing up for them,” says Ms Bhati. “They just want this to be resolved quickly because this is having a daily impact on their life.”

  • ThamesLink and Great Northern Commuters: how have you been affected by rail disruptions? Tell us your stories of disruption and whether you have received compensation at FT.com/trainchaos

Rail warriors

Chaotic rail services in the wake of May’s timetable changes have spawned a number of commuter groups who share their experiences online via social media and help each other obtain compensation.

Harpenden Thameslink Commuters is one of the biggest, with 1,800 members. These include City worker Nicola Macleod, who has been keeping a detailed spreadsheet of the delays she has experienced in order to keep on top of endless Delay Repay claims.

For example, her spreadsheet for the week beginning July 2 showed that her journeys were disrupted by a total of 5 hours and 21 minutes as she endured delays and cancellations virtually every morning and evening.

Under the Delay Repay scheme, she has worked out that she is owed £45.80 in compensation which works out to around 14p per minute of disruption or £8.56 per hour (just above the minimum wage).

Nicola has also worked out that as delays become longer, the amount of compensation per minute reduces. For a 15-minute delay, she is entitled to £2.90 (19.33p per minute) while for a 60-minute delay it is £11.30 (18.83p per minute).

Another commuter who has been keeping track of disrupted journeys is Helen Patterson, a member of the Bedford Rail Campaigners: Save Our Trains group and the managing director of a retail company.

Since the new timetable started in May, she has endured nearly 24 hours of delays in total on her commute from Bedford to central London. She has made Delay Repay claims for £184.80 in compensation but does not feel this is enough.

“On some days I have not arrived at work until 12.30,” she says. “The delays are exhausting. If I don’t get in until noon, I end up leaving work at 10pm. After 7pm, the service becomes unreliable again and often I do not get home until after midnight.

“People are so uptight. We have to run around platforms [when trains are changed at the last minute]. You can find a train is cancelled when you are already sitting on it because there is no relief driver.”

Additional reporting by Edwin Esosa  

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