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Roads to Nowhere

A new route to compensation when a transport operator fails you

Lianna Etkind's picture
Man holds up a placard reading 'Southern Discomfort'

Fed-up passengers can now turn to the Consumer Rights Act.

We’ve all had those nightmare journeys.

You head to the train toilet, only to find that it’s out of order, and you have another three hours of journey ahead.

Your train inexplicably stops for twenty minutes between stations, with absolutely no announcements about what’s going on and when you can expect to get going again.

Or you plug in your laptop, all set for productive couple of hours catching up on emails, then realise that the wifi you were promised just doesn’t work.

Up until now, passengers had no clear rights when it came to ‘qualitative’ failings like these. Yes, we could write a letter of complaint to the transport operator, but they were under no obligation to provide compensation or change the way they act. This month, all that changes. From this October, the Consumer Rights Act applies to rail.

The Act gives new protection to consumers when a service or goods that they bought is ‘not delivered with reasonable care and skill’. It also clarifies that information provided to customers before making a purchase – for example, a promise of wifi - is binding. For the first time, passengers will be able to receive compensation in the same form as they paid for a ticket, rather than in rail vouchers. Last year, the Government had proposed that rail be entirely exempted from the Consumer Rights Act. Earlier this year, they agreed that rail would be covered under the Act, but that passengers would have to wait until October 2017 for the rules to apply to rail. So it's good news that these new rights have been brought in earlier than expected.

A fifteen minute delay deserves compensation
The Consumer Rights Act also opens the way for passengers to claim when they are delayed by less than thirty minutes. The most glaring unfairness in the current Delay Repay scheme, through which passengers currently claim compensation, is that you can only claim compensation for delays of thirty minutes or more. What that means in practice is that over the course of a week, if your train is delayed by twenty five minute on ten journeys a week, you can lose more than four hours of your life to rail delays with no grounds for recompense. Essex rail company c2c is the one noble exception to this: they now automatically award compensation for delays of anything over two minutes, without the hassle of claim forms – although this only applies to people who use their app.

For passengers like those on the troubled Southern rail line, getting home late week after week after week, the thirty minute limit on Delay Repay arrangements is plainly inadequate. Likewise, those passengers who regularly use metro rail services for short journeys are discriminated against by the thirty minute limit. For example, many who travel from stations in South London have a standard journey time of 25minutes, so there has to be a delay double the scheduled journey time before they are eligible for compensation. This cannot be right.

Last autumn, the Government promised that passengers would soon be able to claim compensation when trains were over fifteen minutes late. Fast forward to June 2016, and the then rail Minister, Claire Perry, promised that the Government would make an announcement about compensation in the next few months. This month, pressed again by MPs representing Southern passengers, rail Minister Paul Maynard promised that the issue of rail compensation ‘has not been put on the back burner’, and promised ‘some helpful news relatively soon.’

Not enough passengers are claiming compensation
Currently, train operators make millions of pounds from compensation arrangements. Every time there is a disruption, Network Rail compensates the train company, but only a fraction of this is passed onto passengers: Transport Focus found that almost three quarters of passengers didn’t even know when they were entitled to compensation; and only 12 per cent of passengers entitled to compensation actually claim it.

The Consumer Rights Act’s extension to rail, on its own, will not solve this problem: passengers also need to see the existing Delay Repay arrangements extended to cover delays of over fifteen minutes; and for the scheme to be better publicised. Paul Maynard has suggested that rail companies could be forced to make announcements when passengers become eligible for delays - a move which would go a long way to ensuring more passengers received the compensation they’re entitled to.

How exactly the Act will work in practice remains to be seen. We would like to see clear standards across the rail industry for how much compensation passengers can expect for various types of bad customer service. Much of this will come down to actually taking these cases. We will be meeting with lawyers this month to discuss how we can work with passengers to use the Act, and test its limits against different situations. Some of this might mean actually going to court, but in many cases, a clear letter stating why you think the train company failed to meet your statutory rights, and what measures you would like them to take to address this, should be sufficient. The Consumer Rights Act is not a panacea – there’s still a lot more to be done before there’s a fair compensation system. But it is does open new avenues for disgruntled passengers who’ve had a bad experience at the hands of a rail company.

Image by Nigel Howard

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