Long-suffering train commuters are starting to take a more proactive approach
It was an increasingly familiar scenario for myself and the gaggle of weary commuters struggling to get home to east Suffolk from London Liverpool Street. On a bitterly cold winter evening, the 19.00 London to Norwich mainline service, due at Ipswich at 20.07, had been delayed, yet again, by 10 minutes.
Depressingly, National Express East Anglia had let the connecting 20.13 service on the line out to Saxmundham and Lowestoft depart, meaning we all had to wait nearly another hour for the next train. As our two-hour journey metamorphosed into a three-hour marathon, we faced a miserable late-night wait in a freezing waiting room with no heating and all the coffee and snack bars long closed for the day.
The National Express employee stood outside the customer service office handing out the so-called delay repay forms which enable passengers to claim compensation. But as the 30 or so of us – increasingly familiar and forlorn faces to each other because of the frequency of delays – gathered on the platform, one exasperated man demanded that, instead of being forced to wait, we should all be given taxis to take us straight home. As the employee protested that he did not have the power to sanction such a move, and that authorisation had to come from a senior manager in Norwich, I shrieked: “Well, get on the phone then, and ask for authorisation.”
With an angry mob baying for action, the employee dutifully went back into the office and made the phone call. There was a huge cheer when he returned to say that the official thumbs-up had been given, and we lined up for the cabs which would whisk us home.
The days of National Express running the trains here are numbered as it has been stripped of the Greater Anglia franchise three years early. In October, the Department for Transport announced that the Dutch transport company Abellio (which runs two other franchises in the UK) is to operate the route which includes commuter and longer-distance routes out of London to Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Abellio has already warned passengers not to expect miracles when it takes over in February. It will initially only run until July 2013, but with the ultimate prize of a longer, 15-year franchise. And it is an enormous challenge.
This is, of course, the railway that will be on show to the world during the Olympic Games, providing services to and from the Olympic park. Overall, it will be responsible for 3,000 employees and the safe operation of 43,000 services a month, carrying two million passengers a week.
It was not for nothing disgruntled passengers set up a website called I hate National Express East Anglia which declared: “Clapped out carriages, held together by the paint of various private train companies, secondhand rolling stock from other train routes, overhead electrical lines that date from 1938 – this is the National Express East Anglia route.”
In 2010 National Express changed the train times and connections for passengers in east Suffolk, ending the through services from London to Lowestoft in return for more regular, hourly services. But the tight timing of the connection at Ipswich, and the frequent delays have made travelling into London so unreliable that many people have given up and drive to stations like Manningtree or Colchester where there are more trains and a shorter journey.
Like many other commuters, I am now so used to routinely claiming for repayment for delayed trains that I keep a stack of forms on my desk.
Some of my fellow commuters from Saxmundham have been paying upwards of £6,000 a year for season tickets to travel in uncomfortable trains which, when they do run on time, are packed. Holders of 12-month season tickets, for example, paid £6,120 for 2011 but face a 5.6% rise to £6,468 from next week.
The consumer group Passenger Focus says travellers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, using social media such as Twitter to communicate delays to each other and to complain about poor service. Anthony Smith, the group’s chief executive, said: “Passengers must complain. If they get together as a group it amplifies their voice, and, of course, if you don’t ask you don’t get. People build their lives around railway timetables and if the basic promise to run trains at a certain time is not delivered then they must do something about it. All our surveys show that people hate changing trains because of problems with connections. There’s absolutely no question of passengers resorting to tactics such as bullying staff, but overall they have become more assertive and pro-active.”
In my area, the decision by passengers to be more vocal has clearly paid off. The operator’s Passengers’ Charter states that should a connection be missed because a train is running late, it will endeavour to provide passengers with alternative transport to get to their final destination if the next connecting train is more than 60 minutes away and if it will get you there quicker than waiting for the next train.
Operators clearly rely on passenger inertia to keep compensation claims to a minimum. In East Anglia, if a journey is delayed by 30 minutes or more you can claim compensation with the delay repay scheme. This guarantees compensation to a value of at least 50% of the cost of the ticket held for that portion of the journey. If the journey is delayed by 60 minutes or more then this is doubled. In the case of seven-day tickets (weekly) and season tickets (monthly and annual), the compensation will be calculated against the proportional daily cost of the price of the ticket.
The reality, however, is that most passengers simply want a punctual and reliable service – and one that is worth the thousands of pounds they pay every year for it.
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