Passengers rail against the wrong sort of refund

Who said we are entering a new era of train travel? Over the past week good old-fashioned chaos has returned for commuters in London and the South-east as a dispute over working hours between drivers and Connex South Central, the railway company, caused widespread cancellations and delays. And just to add insult to injury, Connex last week insisted that it will not be giving refunds to customers messed about by the dispute, on the basis that the company has still been running a service (of sorts) and the problems have been caused by industrial action.

If a passenger is delayed for any other reason than industrial action, passengers are entitled to a better deal. In Connex's case passengers can apply for compensation of 20 per cent of the delayed journey (10 per cent of the return fare) for delays of one hour or more, albeit in the form of vouchers for future travel.

The minimum refund the new privatised train operators must give is 10 per cent of the fare. But even for an Intercity return, this might be as little as a few pounds. However, some companies are more generous. Midland Main Line, whose services include Sheffield to London, offers a full refund if a train is delayed by an hour or more. A spokesman says: "When you ask around for the name of a good company, people say Marks & Spencer. It's no quibble: if you take something back, you get your money back. We would like to get to that level, and exceed people's expectations." At the moment, however, its refunds, like pretty much all of the new rail operators, are still voucher-based.

The Gatwick Express gives a 100 per cent refund for trains delayed by more than an hour, Scotrail will give 50 per cent, while Central Trains will give 50 per cent after half an hour.

Rail companies also vary in how easy they make it for passengers to claim. Some provide pre-paid forms on the trains themselves; others rely on passengers finding someone with a claim form at their destination.

London Underground, by comparison, claims to offer full refunds for delays of 15 minutes or more. In theory claim forms should be available at ticket offices. However, says London Underground, if someone writes in and says he or she had to catch a taxi because they were delayed on the tube, only the cost of the fare will be refunded. And with strikes, only season-ticket holders are entitled to refunds. National Express, the coach operator, has no compensation scheme for delays but will look at each case on its merits.

The Central Rail Users' Committee (CRUC), which represents passengers, welcomes the train company refund deals as improvements on the old-style British Rail days. ATOC, the trade body for the new privatisation-era companies, notes: "The publicly-owned railways never really came to terms with customer service".

But, says CRUC spokesman Philip Wilkes, there is one improvement still to be made: paying compensation in cash, not rail vouchers. "We have always questioned why you should be offered more of an unsatisfactory product to compensate for an unsatisfactory product," he says. "It should be made in cash."

But while at least some rail companies are waking up to the public relations value of offering compensation for delays, customers who want to change tickets because their plans have changed may well encounter a further myriad of complications. This has been fuelled by an explosion in special or discounted fares, and a move towards airline-style, pre-booked tickets.

Standard "walk-on" tickets can be changed, but the National Conditions of Carriage allows operators to make a "reasonable administrative charge". Typically, this is pounds 5, which is the charge on Great Western or Great North Eastern Railways. On National Express coaches, by contrast, the charge is just pounds 1.25. However, with Apex fares, which need to be booked in advance for a specific train, there may be no refunds at all if you need to change your journey, or cannot travel.