BR puts a tight fist on claims

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The Independent Online
TRAVELLERS on British Rail are getting a poorer service and worse treatment of their complaints as a direct result of the introduction of the Passenger's Charter, according to the official rail-users' watchdog body.

The Central Transport Consultative Committee (CTCC) says that rebates for delayed journeys, introduced in May under the charter, are being kept to a minimum or refused altogether because of BR's 'rigid' interpretation of the scheme's guidelines and its 'manipulation' of time-keeping records. The CTCC criticises BR for 'failing to keep to the letter as well as the spirit of the charter'.

BR's behaviour is an embarrassment for the Prime Minister, John Major. The scheme, part of the Citizen's Charter initiative, was intended, in his words, to 'improve significantly the terms of compensation to passengers who suffer worst from train delays'.

The rail charter states: 'Each claim will be treated on its merits and, for your guidance, we would expect to offer . . . passengers who are delayed for more than an hour . . . vouchers to the value of 20 per cent or more of the price paid for that journey.'

The decision whether to pay up is left to local BR business managers who must find the money out of their own budgets.

Before the scheme began, the CTCC says BR was 'quite generous' in giving away vouchers to passengers, however long or short a delay. Now, the group reports, BR managers refuse to consider any delays of less than an hour and usually treat the 20 per cent figure as a fixed sum rather than a guaranteed minimum.

Claims are not always being considered on their merits. One woman is still trying to get a refund four months after arriving three hours late on a journey from Watford to Matlock in Derbyshire. She had missed her connection in Derby because her train from the south was running half an hour late. BR argues that she does not deserve a voucher as the hold-ups on each leg of her journey were less than an hour.

Graham Kendrick, secretary of the CTCC regional committee for the Midlands, said that in the past BR would typically refund between pounds 15 and pounds 20 but now offered around pounds 8. 'We didn't always agree with how much BR gave before, but at least it was more than it pays out now,' he said.

Under the charter, passengers with monthly or annual season tickets will receive discounts on their next pass if trains on their line fail to meet annual targets. But since May, the CTCC says, BR has added extra minutes into the timetable between the penultimate station and final destination on some routes, including the London to Tilbury and Southend lines, which 'reduces the risk of trains being late and consequently making it less likely for BR to have to pay compensation'.

Discounts on season tickets cannot be claimed until after January 10 - a year after BR started monitoring its performance on lines - and then only when passes are renewed. Train fares rise in early January, and many season ticket holders buy their new pass before that date to beat the price increases. Passengers who wait to 10 January, the CTCC says, will see their discounts wiped out by fare increases.

BR is taking up to six weeks to respond to passenger claims for the new refunds. The charter states that customers' requests should be acknowledged within 10 working days.

A BR spokesman admitted that some passengers were getting smaller refunds than before, but said that the charter allowed for greater uniformity in dealing with claims throughout the country. He said BR's time-keeping targets would be independently audited but extra minutes had been included in the timetable to take into account possible delays from engineering work.

There were now twice as many complaints compared to four months ago which had led to the delays, he said. But this was 'a sign of the charter's success'. Michael Patterson, the CTCC's secretary, is not convinced. 'The charter won't replace a single ancient carriage or replace a worn-out section of the railway,' he said. 'To put BR right you need more money and good management.'