Rail firms say 'wrong kind of question' made them give inaccurate fare details

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Train companies blamed the "wrong kind of questions" yesterday for giving incorrect information on fares in two out of three cases.

Investigators from the Consumers' Association made 47 inquiries about the price of tickets and were given the wrong answers on 31 occasions, with an average overcharge of £32. One fare which should have been £52 was quoted at varying prices, one as high as £164. Another, which should have been £25.60, was quoted at £72.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said many of the queries were "quirky" and not the sort passengers would ask. The association's report was dismissed as "unrepresentative rubbish".

Questions were drawn up on the advice of the "Rail Passenger's Council". Among the queries and responses were:

* I must get from Manchester Piccadilly to London by 11am tomorrow. What's the cheapest fare? The correct answer is: Travel via Chesterfield to St Pancras for £52. But the National Rail Enquiry Service, funded by the train companies, said a standard open return costing £164 was needed and was not valid before 11am. Manchester Piccadilly said the inquirer should buy a £95 "business saver" and get there three hours early.

* What's the cheapest day trip from London to Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, tomorrow? What's the first train I can catch? The right answer is: Buy a return from the Silverlink company for £18.50, leaving at 8.46am from Euston. But the National Rail Enquiry Service, as well as Euston, Liverpool Street and St Pancras stations in London were all wrong. Most recommended a 10.55am train for £42.40.

* I want to get from London to Bath and back tomorrow. I need to be in Bath by about 10.45am. What's the cheapest fare? The right answer is: Travel from Waterloo, changing at Salisbury. You will arrive at 10.28am and it costs £25.60. The Waterloo ticket office was right. But St Pancras, Paddington, Waterloo travel centre and the national enquiry service were wrong with the last two saying that a £72 return ticket was needed.

Helen Parker, editor of the Consumers' Association magazine Which? said that because British rail fares were among the most expensive in Europe, it was important that customers got the correct information. Anthony Smith, the national director of the Rail Passengers Council said: "It seems [staff] haven't been given the right tools or the necessary training."

The Association of Train Operating Companies said the questions were not the kind of inquiries that passengers normally make. Nick Illsley, chief executive of the National Rail Enquiry Service said management concentrated on "real questions asked by customers, ensuring we get this right consistently". He said the report was based on a "statistically meaningless" sample and that the Consumers' Association had its own agenda.

Railtrack famously told passengers that winter delays and cancellations were caused by the "wrong kind of snow".