How I ended up with two free first class tickets from Virgin Trains East Coast

Warning: This is a rant about trains and nothing to do with my coastal walk (other than I used the resulting free ticket for to get to one of my coastal walks). But rather then fill up my latest post on my coastal walk about it, I have created a separate post.

As well as walking the coast I also like to do some other walks too. I’ve done a few sections of the Pennine Way and in September 2017 I was heading back to Yorkshire to do another section.

Due to engineering works there were only around 50% of the usual number of trains into London Waterloo and those trains that were running were taking a longer and slower route too. As I resulted I had opted to drive to Morden Underground station instead and take the tube from there into London, rather than the train. I got to my destination without problem.

On my return journey I took a local train from Littleborough to Leeds and then was booked on another train from Leeds to London. The first problem was that on boarding the train at Leeds it was announced that “due to staff shortage” there was no catering service at all and the buffet car would be closed. This was a pain for me as I’d had a quick snack at Leeds station but hoped to buy more food and drink from the buffet on my way back. That wasn’t going to happen now.

Anyway without boring you all with the details the overhead electric wires had been pulled down further south near Peterborough blocking all the lines and causing our train to grind to a halt just north of Peterborough. We were due to transfer to a replacement diesel train to take another route to London. This eventually arrived late and then took the original route, rather than diverting as we had been told it would, getting caught in the disruption again, so we had to sit and wait for the wires to be repaired. The train eventually arrived at London Kings Cross at 3:30am, around 5 1/2 hours late. I’d had nothing to eat or drink since leaving Leeds, more than 7 hours earlier, since the buffet on both trains was closed.

Thankfully for me I had driven to Morden tube station and the tube runs all through the night on a Saturday night so I was at least able to get at tube train to my car and drive home, but I’d been up most of the night by the time I got home, meaning I had to cancel my plans for the following day.

I did get a refund of my ticket but my complaint about poor care, lack of food and drink fell on deaf ears. In fact the Virgin Trains East Coast (as the company was then) passengers charter says they will provide alternative transport or overnight accommodation if they were unable to get you to your destination at a “reasonable” time. I don’t consider 3:30am to be a reasonable time, but no accommodation was offered. I also complained that there was no food or drink available at all, given there was nothing available on the train and by the time we could off the train (at Grantham – it’s always Grantham where I get stuck!) all the station catering facilities were closed (as it was after 11pm by this time).

Unbelievably, to this latter point I received the following comment (eventually).

In times of disruption we may remove all catering facilities and this is purely down to health and safety. If we operate a crowded service due to disruption staff will not be able to navigate through the carriages safely with hot food and hot drinks.

I simply could not believe it! Passengers such as myself had been left without food or drink, or the ability to buy any, for over 7 hours and now Virgin Trains East Coast were now claiming that to have provided any food or drink during this time would be a “health and safety” issue! Surely the lack of drink for 7 hours really is a health issue? This is why I’m afraid when I hear the dreaded phrase “health and safety” I roll my eyes because it’s usually an excuse for a killjoy to stop something or to try to justify do nothing, as here. I even spoke to a manager who insisted the same.

Eventually I took my complaint to complaint to “Passenger Focus”. They negotiated for me to receive 2 free return 1st class tickets to anywhere on the Virgin Trains East Coast route as compensation in addition to the refund I had already received (and although I did get these tickets I never got a proper response to my complaint to Virgin Trains East Coast).

Virgin Trains East Coast of course later went complaining to the Government that they weren’t making as much money as they hoped and the Government gave into them (much to my disgust). Indeed to quote the BBC article “Mr Grayling said the franchise had failed because Stagecoach and Virgin Trains had “got their bid wrong”, overestimating the profitability of the line.”  and “Mr Grayling said the companies had overestimated growth in passenger numbers and revenues and were having to reach into their own pockets to fulfil the terms of the franchise.”.  So there we go. Private company not making money and our (then) transport secretary “Failing Grayling” decided that simply would not do and so allowing them to exit the franchiser early (which was later nationalised and renamed LNER, which of course means the trains must be painted in new logos, at further expense). Isn’t rail privatisation a complete mess? Because the view of the Government seems to be that if a private company makes money that’s great, but if it’s losing money, we must nationalise it, so as to avoid a private company losing money.

This was, unfortunately, just one of a number of problems I had experienced with the rail network in 2017 and 2018. Earlier the same year I’d had another problem with Virgin Trains where the journey I had booked was impossible because of a strike on Northern Rail. I ended up forking out for another nights hotel stay on the Friday night and travelling up a day earlier to avoid having to cancel my plans as a result of my strike, none of which I got back, and had a nightmare journey getting there on the Friday evening (another saga I shall bore you with in future).

Then during summer 2018 my local train company (which had become South Western Railway, after the previous franchise, South West Trains ended), there was a strike almost every single Saturday (the day when I usually travel), throwing other plans into further dis-array. Punctuality and reliability also plummeted, causing the company to issue a report of excuses. Then the window in which you can book Advance tickets dropped to less than 3 months (meaning cheap deals were not easily available) because Network Rail was unable to confirm the timetables even 3 months in advance. In many cases, the timetable for trains at weekend was only confirmed the day before, making it impossible to plan in advance (I mean if you try to book a hotel in most places the night before, you’ll have a job finding a room, and certainly at a good price). In short the whole network was in chaos. It was not possible to plan ahead, get cheap tickets in advance or rely on the service actually running. There were strikes on numerous different train companies (at least South Western Railway, Northern and Southern, probably others too) and timetables that didn’t work. Yet of course, the prices went up above inflation, as they have done every year for many years.

As a result I’ve greatly reduced the amount I travel by train, because I became so fed up of the number of problems I had and delays on almost every journey that I did make, and poor customer service in dealing with it. The disruption also left me out of pocket, having to book hotels etc in order to try to salvage my carefully made plans when disrupted by strikes, which also took a lot of my time. Instead of travelling by train so much, I’ve been travelling more by car and, when going to Scotland, by plane now rather than train. It might not be good for the environment, but it is faster, usually cheaper and a lot better for my sanity. As I also found earlier this year, the customer service at airlines is seems far better when something does go wrong even if outside the airlines control (as it was in my case) – they do  provide hotels – unlike Virgin Trains!

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2 Responses to How I ended up with two free first class tickets from Virgin Trains East Coast

  1. Pingback: 255. Longstone Island | Round the Island

  2. Oh for an integrated transport system, publicly run for the benefit if the public! I have a mantra that works well in many circumstances: I blame Margaret Thatcher.

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