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.