Train companies in the UK are uniformly awful. Because they are privately run but endure no meaningful form of competition, we get to see just how hostile corporations are to customers when left to their own devices.
I am a long-suffering passenger on First Great Western. The line between Oxford and London regularly suffers from delays. According to their own statistics, journeys on that line miss their punctuality targets 20% of the time.
So, I've taken to emailing a complaint to them every time my train is delayed. Whether it is by one minute or one hour, I fire off a quick email and include a photo of my ticket. For the last year or so, I've regularly received "Rail Vouchers" as a "goodwill payment". However, since July, train companies now have to give refunds in cash.
By coincidence, FGW have now stopped their goodwill payments for minor delays!
Earlier this month, I dropped a mail to them saying "I would like a full refund for this delay. If I was £1 short when paying for a ticket, you would refuse to let me on your trains. I am not interested in excuses, or how your goodwill payments are not guaranteed, or how you plan to improve the service in the future. I want a refund."
I then received this epic 1,000 word reply from one of their customer service team:
Thank you for your additional email of 14 August 2015, and for providing the additional details. It really is of concern to us whenever any valued customer remains so utterly unhappy with us. To this end, I do apologise.
With regard to your specific question, you’re quite correct – insomuch that if any passenger is short of the required fare, we would not issue a ticket. This is simply because every ticket printed in the UK is classed as an individual retail product, with an inherent commercial value. Just like any high street retailer, the rail industry does have auditing requirements to adhere to, whereby we cannot sell such items for less than their designated value. It’s standard retailing practice.
Of course, I recognise your point here, in that why should our customers not hold us as rigidly to our performance/timetables?! But really, performance and retailing / auditing requirements are two quite distinct business considerations. As such, direct comparisons are not as straightforward as they can initially seem.
We’re very much of the same opinion as our customers here – insomuch that we’d genuinely love to run all of our trains to-time on every occasion. Indeed, as a commercial entity there’s really no benefit to our doing otherwise, especially when there are financial penalties involved for delays. Unfortunately, running to schedule 100% of the time just isn’t a reality that is allowed by modern rail operations; as realistically challenges will arise as part of day-to-day operations. This is certainly not something unique to First Great Western, but applies nationwide to all the Train Operators.
It’s to this end that disruptions are recognised within the legal stipulations set-out by the Government within the National Rail Conditions of Carriage. This document presents obligations on both the behalf of the rail industry, as well as with individual passengers. That way, both parties are clear on their standing.
When considered alongside the individual ticket terms and conditions, and the specific compensation guidelines of our own Passengers Charter, each passenger does have the resources to be fully aware of their standing prior to travelling, insomuch as what to expect from us. This includes entitlement to compensation, should the passenger then be delayed. But, no-where does it state that the pre-determined, fixed retail cost of the ticket is something related to ever-fluctuating performance levels – as the two areas are quite distinct.
Of course, even a single minute of disruption is of genuine concern to us. Indeed, it’s why we have dedicated teams to analyse such problems on the network. They look to see if there is any common theme and will always look at what we could do to prevent a reoccurrence. Ad-hoc delays are more difficult to tackle of course, but we very much want you to be able to rely on us; and I hope we get to show you more tangible evidence of the improvements we’re committed to making.
As part of our disruption response, we have to have clear-cut policies in-place towards compensation, and to consistently apply these on the whole. As a commercial entity with such a large customer base, it’s the only way we get to offer a fair and reliable service overall. That said, we’re certainly not unreasonable in these matters, so we will also consider discretionary awards on a case-by-case basis too.
Unfortunately, it’s just not a commercially viable way for any Train Company to Operate – if we were to somehow start offering compensation or easements on a minute-by-minute basis. Of course, this isn’t said to negate our responsibilities at all, as even the slightest delay is of concern, especially if it’s recurrent. As such, the lack of compensation certainly doesn’t negate the legitimacy of your concerns in any way, and you have got good and understandable reason to challenge us to do better.
But, back to the question at-hand, it’s not such a simple comparison to make between ticket prices and compensation, albeit I certainly understand the expectations involved. The fact that disruptions realistically happen is already built-in to the retail product itself, being covered by its terms and conditions and the likes of our compensation policy. It’s something the customer effectively agrees to whenever they purchase a rail ticket in the first instance – whereby the possibility for delays is recognised in advance by a pre-established compensation policy.
That said, I do feel we’re getting off-topic by making comparisons between the compensation rules and ticket cost; as in all truthfulness rationales could be presented from either perspective ad infinitum. Rather, I feel the main point here remains that you feel we’re failing on our commitments to our customers, and that you’re not getting the level of service you’ve got every right to expect. This honestly isn’t a position that we want any regular traveller to find themselves in at all, nor to feel so utterly disenfranchised with us. To this end, I do hope that you’ll feel able to accept my sincere apologies.
I feel the likes of the ticket costs and compensation guidelines are quite clear. But equally, I do hope we’ve been able to show just how committed we are to making real improvements in the field of performance. Indeed, at the time of writing the major works at Bath are evidence of this. Coupled with the likes of the Crossrail project, a radical change to the signalling system, and the introduction of 369 brand new 800-series EMU carriages etc, we are determined to run a service that our customers rightly deserve.
The problem remains that such drastic changes to the fundamental changes to the running of the railways does not come overnight – but represents longer-term and multi-organisational efforts within the industry. But the point remains, we are actively working on things, albeit I do appreciate why it may not seem like it from your perspective at the moment.
Thank you again for your correspondence, and for your continued input. Such customer correspondence really is invaluable to us.
WHAT?!?! I had to read that several times to fully comprehend the majesty of the reply. Having Googled the author, it seems he has a habit of writing extremely long and confusing replies to escalated queries. One might wonder if he is FGW's secret weapon? A Gatling Gun of words designed to beat customers into submission.
Here is my reply to him. Incidentally, have you ever tried to write in as convoluted manner as possible? It really is quite tricky!
My Dear Mr ...,
I must firstly congratulate you on producing one of the finest examples of excess verbiage I have encountered in many years of working with direct customer service representatives for the consumer and retail industry in the UK. I cannot truly fathom when I last received a missive with such bewildering sentence structure, archaic grammatical nuances, and convoluted logic. Insofar as your authorial talents have achieved a Flesch Reading Ease score of 47.2 (albeit only one of many way by which ease of reading can be readily calculated) I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that you are engaged in a deliberate ploy to bamboozle and confuse unsuspecting customers by means of making your replies torturous to comprehend.
It is incredibly difficult to know how one should respond to your mystifying "answers" - being that I am a reasonable fellow, and utterly committed to clarity within my writing, I shall take great pains to correspond with you in a plain and simple fashion, without boondoggles or idle diversions. It is my sincere hope that your comprehension will be aided by my precise and direct observations.
According to details that your company has taken upon itself to publish on its own web site - located at http://www.firstgroup.com/uktrain/kpi/gw/recent-performance.php - your punctuality can only be considered as atrocious.
Insofar as the statistics you publish are an adequate reflection of reality, it would appear that only eighty percent of your trains on the route between London and Thames Valley (which includes the journeys I regularly travel) are punctual!
One fifth of all journeys are late - by some degree or other! In my not inconsiderable experience I am surprised that this number is not higher. It seems the vast majority of journeys I attempt on this line are delayed for a variety of reasons. Even if we accept your statistics - is there any possible way you can defend to your paying customers a service which is inadequate nearly a QUARTER of the time?
I do not believe any reasonable business decides that its corporate interests are best served by under-performing to such a disastrous degree. Therefore I can only conclude that your company is simply unable to withstand the rigours of running a train company. Perhaps it would be in you best interests to relinquish your franchise and partake in an industry which requires a substantially less intensive commitment to delivering on expectations from customers and regulators alike?
But, again, we are drawn off topic. Over the last year, you have on multiple times given me goodwill payments for all the trifling delays I have encountered. Sadly, and to my great regret, these have been in the form of "Rail Vouchers" which can only be used in part payment for further rail journey and - for some ridiculous reason - cannot be used online or at ticket machines. As I understand it, the Government Regulator responsible for ensuring your compliance with the law has now instructed you to cease payment in vouchers and insists that compensation be paid as monetary refunds.
Perhaps this is the very reason you are now so unwilling to provide goodwill payments to customers you have inconvenienced?
I should very much like you to continue paying me - and, indeed, if it were possible, all other customer similarly affected by your lackadaisical approach to timekeeping - goodwill reimbursements.
You have considerably delayed and annoyed me over the last several months. I buy a ticket, I expect you to run on time. If you are unable to do that, I expect a part refund.
If you yourself are unable to authorise such restitutions, please will you escalate this chain of correspondence to someone in your organisation who has sufficient responsibility to provide such recompense as part of their ambit.
If you've made it down this far, I salute you! I've no idea whether FGW will pay compensation or if I'm about to be prosecuted for crimes against the English language!