East Coast trains on wrong track over ticketing policy

One reader was charged £131 extra after already buying an £82 single ticket, while another suffered a 12-hour journey after a breakdown

I was booked on a 7am East Coast train from London King’s Cross to York. Due to the unclear information at the station I got on the first train I could see going to York – the 7.08.

I saw no staff around to confirm whether this was the right train – and, in my naivety, I presumed my train may have been delayed leaving – as it was only eight minutes, after all.

The inspector on the train told me I was on the wrong train and said that I would have to either pay £131.50 for a single, or speak with British Transport Police. Under this threat I paid the extra money. I’d already paid £82 for my return tickets two weeks previously. This is extortionate.

East Coast has said its position is it won’t give me a refund despite me providing proof that I arrived at Kings Cross Station at 06.18. NB, London

We have long highlighted the absurd National Rail Conditions of Carriage that mean passengers can be forced to buy a whole new, full-price single ticket – costing more than £130 in this case – by getting on a train that leaves, as in this case, just a few minutes later than the one they booked to be on.

We have done a number of similar stories – East Coast appears to be the worst offender according to our postbag – but it is not alone. Some guards apply common sense, others don’t.

We have repeatedly called for a legal challenge to these rules, but consumer group Passenger Focus prefers to try to address this matter quietly behind the scenes – but with no concrete results yet. We feel passengers are being unfairly fined. As a minimum, they should only have to pay the difference between what they have already paid and the full fare. If MPs had to buy train tickets out of their own funds, you feel things would soon start changing on British trains.

One reason why guards on the East Cost line may be so keen to enforce these rules is that they are paid 5% commission for every ticket they can sell on board to people who have deemed to have got on without a valid ticket. If they manage to sell a few full fare tickets to York or Edinburgh each a day, they can make an extra £50 a day.

An East Coast spokesman suggested it was rather odd that you had not been able to get the right train, given you were at the station 40 minutes prior to your train leaving

“The National Rail Conditions of Carriage, which apply to all tickets sold for travel on all services, not just East Coast, clearly state that it is the customer’s responsibility to have a valid ticket in their possession for the journey they are making. Advance purchase tickets are sold at a considerable discount to reflect this condition of use.”

As a one-off goodwill gesture EC is refunding you £91 of the £131 extra you paid, which means the single to York cost you £82. Not great, but better than nothing.

Out of interest, we were contacted by another reader this week who wrote to say that a train conductor she met on holiday last year, who lived in York, was saying how delighted he was that his rail company had upped the “commission rate he received on tickets sold on the train to people unable to produce a proper ticket”.

However, there are other train companies that operate out of York. East Coast told us it has not raised its commission rate since 1998.

• On 21 October, I boarded the 11am East Coast train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. An overhead cable broke. An hour later, and after waiting for four hours, another engine arrived and we resumed the journey.

Unbelievably, this engine then broke down just short of Edinburgh and we were delayed again, arriving over eight hours behind schedule making it a total of over 12 hours on board.

We filled out compensation claims forms on the train. On my return to London, I emailed East Coast customer services, and wrote to their head office. I wanted East Coast to understand that it was its total lack of customer care during those 12 hours that I found unacceptable. We arrived at York four hours later than expected but no staff boarded the train to offer water, refreshments or clean the toilets. No one inquired about our wellbeing on arrival at Edinburgh. Since then, I have had no answer to my letter to head office. I eventually received an email asking me to scan and forward details of my tickets. Two week later I was told they would “try to be in touch in 10 days”.

I was assured that I would hear that day, but have heard nothing. I understand it was a particularly bad day on the railway, but its disregard for customers whilst on its trains continues. CN, SW London

Two trains breaking down and a resulting 12-hour journey from London to Edinburgh doesn’t sound much fun.

As you say in your letter these things happen, but it is how companies deal with them which is just as important. You quite reasonably feel very let down by East Coast. It wouldn’t have killed the company to offer some refreshments at York, but evidently no one at East Coast thought of it.

The fact that it has apparently ignored you since only added to your sense of grievance and annoyance. We asked East Coast to address your complaints, and it says its managing director had written to you – and all the other passengers on the train – to apologise. It also says it replied to your subsequent letter. You are adamant that these letters have not arrived – you are not aware of any other letters going missing – and the train tickets were sent to you. So we went back to the company. Finally it got someone to call you, and the result is that the cost of the ticket – £83 – is being paid directly into your bank account.

The company has also offered a first class ticket for future use as a gesture of goodwill. You are still awaiting this – let’s hope it’s third time lucky for the train firm, although as Money went to press it had still not arrived.

A spokesman has apologised for your experience and says the company is looking at what lessons can be learned from this debacle.

We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email us at consumer.champions@theguardian.com or write to Consumer Champions, Money, the Guardian, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Please include a daytime phone number

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