Complain about the train? You're nicked!

This, in her own words, is the story of Julie Darling, 46, the principal of a language school in Edinburgh, who was put in a cell and charged after complaining about a dreadful train journey from London. Yet the way she was treated will come as no surprise to thousands of travellers
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I had wanted to make the journey from Edinburgh to London for a month. I understood that rail services were not running as usual, and decided I could tolerate the longer journey time, but, because of a medical condition, I waited until the temporary coach link in the Doncaster-Darlington area had ceased. The recorded message at Rail Enquiries at the end of November said: "Train services between London and Scotland have been resumed," implying that there was no longer a coach link on the London to Edinburgh route.

I had wanted to make the journey from Edinburgh to London for a month. I understood that rail services were not running as usual, and decided I could tolerate the longer journey time, but, because of a medical condition, I waited until the temporary coach link in the Doncaster-Darlington area had ceased. The recorded message at Rail Enquiries at the end of November said: "Train services between London and Scotland have been resumed," implying that there was no longer a coach link on the London to Edinburgh route.

The outward journey was relatively straightforward, apart from leaving Waverley late and arriving at King's Cross late. However, on the Saturday morning when I called for the return times I was told that there would be a coach between Darlington and Newcastle. I was also told that the last train left London for Edinburgh at 2pm - four hours earlier than normal. But at the station it was posted that a train would leave for Edinburgh at 3pm. Only one hour difference, but I had wanted to make use of every available minute while in the city.

At Darlington, GNER provided no one to direct passengers to the coach, no one to assist with luggage, and no one to come with us. The coach journey was harrowing. Smoking and beer drinking were allowed, there were no seat belts, and the toilet was locked.

Worse, the driver was less than professional. He drove fast, with little space between the coach and the vehicle in front. He was distracted by four young men sitting immediately behind him who were throwing things at each other and by passengers asking to use the toilet. He refused most of these requests, but one woman, beer can in hand, insisted, so the driver searched on a key-ring for the toilet key, leaving one hand on the steering wheel, with no reduction in speed. At one point, another vehicle tried to join the motorway from a slip road and our driver shouted "Get back you stupid git."

By the time we got to Newcastle the drinking passengers at the rear of the coach were shouting, "Get someone who can drive the f---ing coach." I looked for the name of the coach firm, or a telephone number, on the outside of the coach but there was nothing to identify it.

The coach stopped 75 metres from the entrance to the station. Again, no assistance was offered to passengers with luggage so we made our own way across a bridge to the waiting Edinburgh train. It had not been cleaned. The floors and table tops in the carriage I entered were dirty.

Forty minutes after we boarded and 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time, we were still sitting in Newcastle Station. Not only had the train not been cleaned, it had not been checked for engine and brake problems. Eventually we were asked to go back across the bridge to another train, again without assistance.

At Platform 2 I got on the nearest carriage available as I was not prepared to take one step further than necessary. Of course, the nearest carriage was first class.

I told the ticket collector that in light of what we had been through the least GNER could do was to allow us (myself and another standard-class passenger) a final hour and a half in comfort. She did not ask about our grievances, but said that if we did not pay £10 for an upgrade she would call the guard.

The guard wouldn't listen either, saying that we should write to customer services, though he did not offer an address or telephone number or complaints form. But he did share his own hard-luck story with us. "I've been working for ten-and-a-half hours already today," he said. "Everyone knows what a mess the trains are in at the moment. What did you expect?" When we tried to explain, he interrupted: "It's our word against yours. Who do you think will be believed?"

He said his train was "spick-and-span" and that we had no reason to be unwilling to move to standard, which was nearly empty, and that it was not fair to other first class passengers (both of them) who had paid up to three times what we had. He admitted he had discretion over letting us remain, but he did not care to ask us why we wanted to stay. He warned us that if we did not move he would call British Transport Police to meet us at the station.

I contacted a friend on my mobile who looked up the GNER customer services office telephone number, only to discover, that they are closed on weekends.

The other protesting passenger had her own list of grievances: She was a musician, and was due to play in a flute quartet that evening, but was going to miss her concert. The staff on this nearly empty train did not want to know.

Having journeyed for eight hours, from slow train to nightmare coach to dirty train to first class comfort, we were given GNER's response to our quiet protest: we were met at Waverley Station by British Transport Police.

We made no attempt to evade the police. On the contrary, we were still hoping that someone might be prepared to listen to our complaints. But this was not to be. After listening to the GNER staff give their side of the story, the police said that we must pay.

I said I was not willing to, as we had not received even the standard class service which we had paid for. In response, they pronounce that our sitting in first class was not fair to the paying first-class passengers. The officer told us that GNER would not pursue the matter if we would simply pay the £10. If not, we would be charged. I asked what we would be charged with. The officer said - actually, he shouted - that we would be charged with fraud, that we had taken a service which we did not intend to pay for, and that it was a criminal offence for which we would be finger-printed and DNA'd. I asked whether a member of GNER staff should not also be arrested for fraud, as we had not received the service we had expected in standard class.

Five minutes after getting off the train, I was escorted to the police box. The officer gripped the sleeve of my coat. I said that he did not need to hold on to me. Armed with a Norton Shakespeare and a National Gallery Impressionists poly-bag, I was not going to run away. Again he shouted. Of course he was holding my arm because he was arresting me, and I was being very silly for the sake of a principle.

I believe that my fellow passenger decided to pay. She had good reason, and the police were very intimidating. We had not at any time behaved in a difficult manner. We were neither drunk nor abusive. We had not raised our voices even though we had been shouted at.

So began my hour in police custody. I was warned that anything I said could be used against me. I was asked for identification, and from then on I was addressed, in a bizarrely chummy sort of way, by my first name. My jewellery was confiscated, my pockets were emptied and the contents inventoried. I was searched and asked if I had any distinguishing features or scars. While the officer telephoned for a police check, I asked for a chair and was offered a toilet as a seat. The check turned up nothing, of course, and yet I was put in a cell - a small room with nothing in it but a stainless steel seat-less toilet bowl - and told that they would take finger-prints and a DNA swab.

Finally, I was brought out of the cell, read my rights, told I was being charged with travel fraud, and that I would hear from the Procurator Fiscal within six to eight weeks.

Before I left, I asked if they had any contact with the north of England traffic police. I began to describe the coach journey that had been forced upon us and suggested it would be terrible if there were a coach accident. Again I was interrupted: "That's impossible. Coach drivers are professionals." I related the "stupid git" moment and the officer's response was: "We can't do anything about that. You should have reported it."

I will not describe the further emotional upset this experience with GNER has caused me, nor the time spent contacting advice bureaux, helplines, GNER customer services and, of course, legal advisers. I have neglected my business and young family to come to terms with the hellish coach ride and the heavy-handed treatment by GNER train staff and the transport police.

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