Monday, 2 June 2008

East Midlands Trains and the duty of care

When I was growing up, I felt secure travelling by tube and train. It helped that my dad worked for London Underground, mending the trains. Books like The Railway Children helped too. (Somehow I skimmed over the end of The Last Battle, even though I was a C.S. Lewis fan.) We had - or rather, my brother had - a train that went on a track past platforms and grass and trees. It was a wonder, with scenery constructed by Dad from kits and papier-mache.

I wanted my children to travel by trains too. It helped that we lived near a station and that trains were the quickest and cheapest way to town. As the children grew older, I bought them their young person's railcards and was anxious when they made their first train journeys alone. Children need to learn to travel independently. Earlier this year my son, who is now 16, went to London by train on his own to meet friends. Last weekend he was booked into a Quaker event. I saw him off on the train and gave him written instructions about the underground train he needed and where he was to meet the others. While he was on his way, he rang to check he was going the right way - and he sent me a text to say he'd arrived safely.

When I was my son's age, I knew the important rule of travelling alone. My parents told me, "If you lose your ticket, tell the guard and give your name and address." Of course, things have changed now. They should be easier since the internet makes it possible to buy tickets on-line.

I bought my son's ticket on-line using the East Midlands Trains website. That let me collect his tickets and seat reservations at my usual station - and I checked they were safely tucked in the wallet with my son's railcard. After all, they cost nearly £34.

But on Monday evening my son rang. He'd got his seat reservation but somehow he'd lost the return half of his ticket that went with it. And the people at St Pancras wouldn't let him on the train. To make things worse, the battery on his mobile phone was dying.

My son doesn't look any older than 16. He'd said goodbye to the organisers of the event and was alone in London with his suitcase and guitar. He didn't know what to do.

That's when I rang East Midlands Trains. I asked if someone could let my son on the train, offering to get a train part-way and join the same train so that I could pay the excess to the train staff. No, I couldn't do that. I asked if I could pay his fare by credit card so that he could get the train. No. So what could I do, given that my teenage son was stranded in London? I could go to my local station and ask the ticket office to help. It was a bank holiday evening and, although trains were still running, the ticket office was shut. The man on the phone gave me another number that might help, but warned me I'd have to pay full fare plus a £10 penalty charge.

It had gone 7.00 and the last train back left London at 8.30. I found someone else to ring the number and buy the ticket, hoping that my son, now without a working mobile phone, had heard my last advice to stay by the ticket office. I headed by train to Leicester. I could perhaps get help there and, if nothing else worked, I could get a train to London and stay there with my son. By this time I was very anxious.

Apparently the new phone number was useless. Someone had to reach a mainline railway ticket office to organise a replacement ticket - and it cost £73.50. Luckily my son was by the ticket office at St Pancras as required (my advice was based on guesswork). He was able to take the ticket and run for the next train. Meanwhile I was in Leicester and, although I knew a ticket had eventually been bought, I didn't know which train my son had caught. The station manager at Leicester was helpful and sympathetic. He contacted St Pancras and even found out which train my son had boarded. I waited to meet him for the return journey.

Accidents happen. People lose tickets. Younger, less-experienced travellers are more likely to have problems. But they need to learn independence.

Under-18s don't have credit cards to pay for new tickets. They are unlikely to have much money with them. My son got back safely only because it was possible for someone to drive to a mainline station (I don't have a car) and pay a large sum of money on my behalf by credit card.

Not everyone has a car.

Not everyone has a credit card - or enough money to pay a huge excess fare.

What would have happened if my son had planned to catch a later train? It took more than two hours to arrange for his return journey.

The East Midlands Trains staff I spoke to by telephone had no helpful advice to offer. They reckoned it wasn't their problem if a 16-year-old, still at school, was stranded in London, 120 miles away. It was his problem - and mine.

What would have happened if it hadn't been possible to pay the £73.50 East Midlands Trains demanded for a one way fare? I suppose my son would have been left to beg, or hitch, or sleep rough at the station. I wonder how many young people are forced into this position.

I'm told that in other countries, people have a legal duty of care for one another. Here the only duty of care seems to be for company profits. Train tickets used to be checked by the train guard - a comforting name that suggested he looked after passengers as well as the train. These days the people checking tickets have different titles: they are train managers and revenue protection officers.

It's nearly a week since I e-mailed East Midlands Trains to complain. No-one has replied. I'm not surprised. I've e-mailed East Midlands Trains before. It can take months to hear from them - if they reply at all.


quakerdave said...

The whole concept of "duty of care" would be completely alien in this country, I'm afraid. The folks who pride themselves most on "doing unto others, etc." would be hard pressed to actually behave that way. This company's lack of concern is an outrage.

As a parent, I can totally relate to how you must have been feeling. My geographically-impaired older son was forever getting lost, and we finally had to to invest in a GPS unit for him - no cheap thing, either - just for the piece of mind.

KateJ said...

Absolutely horrendous. I'm glad your son got home OK, but yes it could well have turned out otherwise. And at least he knows London and even has grandparents there. I find it absolutely incomprehensible that you weern't allowed to buy him another ticket,over the phone. But what if he had no one to contact?
I was recently at Paddington when a young women, with very imperfect English, found herself in exactly that situation - she had the seat reservation but had lost the ticket. She didn't realise that the reservation wasn't a ticket and was getting very agitated that she wasn't going to be allowed on to the train. I was just thinking maybe I'd offer to buy her a ticket, but luckily, she found it just in time, discarded at the bottom of her bag, and made it on to the train. A student, she might well not have had the money for another ticket, or anyone she could turn to for help. I don't suppose the rail company would have been any more sympathetic to her, a foreigner, than they were to your son.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear of this nightmare. Nano beuracrats at their worst. I'm glad it worked okay in the end. kllrchrd

Kathz said...

I finally got a reply from the company, referring me to their conditions of carriage and saying they would have helped my son, had he been stranded. Since the company didn't help him in the two and a half hours he spent in the station - and assured me it wasn't their responsibility - I'm not convinced.

I had thought of asking my parents for help but, given their age, was reluctant. It's also a two-hour journey from St Pancras by tube and bus and they would have worried about my son all the time he was travelling - and I would have worried about him and about them worrying. My son isn't entirely confident about managing tubes and buses on his own and the route would have involved two tube trains and a walk to find the bus-stop, followed by a longish bus journey. He's never done that journey alone and, of course, he didn't have a working mobile phone.

Later various other emergency solutions came to mind but I didn't have much time to organise things so I muddled through as best I could, with such help as I could find on a bank holiday.

Anonymous said...

I think its East Midlands Rail not all rail companies are so rigid and inhumane. My daughter was recently traveling on East Midlands up to Nottingham for her University interview and purchased her ticket with her student rail card. She forgot her rail card at home and if she went home to get the card she would miss her train and her interview. She was fine on the way up but on the way home the contuctor became quite aggressive. She explained she left it at home and offered to call me to give the serial number and if need be I can board the train at St. Pancras with the rail card to show them.. this conductor acted more like a traffic warden who was going to receive commission the more tickets she issued. My daughter offered to pay the difference but she said they didn't except Electron cards and she was going to have to issue her a fine confiscate her ticket as it is invalid. My teenage daughter was in floods of tears and this woman showed no mercy or the slightest bit of humanity. I met my daughter and boarded the train and showed her the rail card but she lied and said it was too late if she would have known I was going to be there she could have helped. My daughter said she told her this but she called my daughter a liar. I raised my eyebrow in horror and she became aggresive with me too. I asked her to just leave us alone and she started saying when she was 17 years old she was living in America and that my daughter was an adult and should be treated as one. I think she was a bit mad. I complained to East midlands but I have had no reply and had to pay a £70 fine. I wish I knew how to take this further as there must be someone these people must answer to.

Kathz said...

I commute on East Midlands Trains and, while some staff are lovely, others tend to be suspicious and to accuse everyone of trying to evade fares. I've had a couple of nasty moments when train and station staff have lectured me - and even, on one occasion, shouted at me and accused me of being a regular fare-evader who would be banned from the railways. It seems quite shocking as I've always gone out of my way to pay, even when travelling from unstaffed stations, sometimes queuing after the journey so as not to cheat the system. Now I am occasionally hectored because I find it hard to see where my ticket is in my bag without reading glasses and because slight arthritis in my fingers can make it tricky to extract my season ticket from its wallet.

I'm afraid the attitude changed noticeably when East Midlands Trains took over the franchise - we aren't treated like passengers but just sources of revenue. As for the lack of help or information when trains break down ... lately the attitude seems to be that worthwhile people should travel by car.