Train delays to trigger automatic refunds - but Virgin Trains attach strings to the pledge

Almost half of Virgin Trains arrive late, but only one in 20 runs at least half-an-hour behind schedule or is cancelled – the conditions that would trigger the payments promised under the Delay Repay policy

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The Independent Online

Train delays will now trigger automatic refunds - but only a tiny proportion of rail passengers will benefit.

In an industry first, Virgin Trains is telling some travellers whose West Coast services are delayed by half-an-hour or more that they need not apply for compensation. The stipulated “Delay Repay” refund will be credited to the original payment card within three days, so long as the passenger meets some stringent conditions.

To benefit, they must be travelling on an Advance ticket. It must be bought online direct from Virgin Trains, rather than from any other source. And the journey must not involve another train operator, such as a connection at Crewe for a service to North Wales.

Almost half of Virgin Trains arrive late, but only one in 20 runs at least half-an-hour behind schedule or is cancelled - the conditions that would trigger the payments promised under the Delay Repay policy.

Only one in six of significant delays is caused by Virgin Trains. Most are the responsibility of Network Rail, but the train operator pays out regardless of the cause. 

Passengers delayed by 30-59 minutes are refunded half the single fare. The whole one-way ticket price is paid for journeys between one and two hours behind schedule. Longer delays trigger full refunds of a return journey, even if only one leg is late.

Virgin Trains says that many passengers do not claim the refunds that are due to them. The train operator estimates that it will hand back £2.8m in additional compensation this year to 85,000 travellers who would not otherwise claim - representing an average of £33 each.

Phil Whittingham, managing director of Virgin Trains, said: “We’re delighted to be the first train company to automatically refund cash.”

The firm is likely to recoup much of its extra spending by enticing passengers away from third-party sources such as TheTrainline.com. Because the new benefit applies only to direct sales, it is expected to drive traffic to the Virgin Trains website and app.

Mr Whittingham said: “The more people who book with us, the more we can help in this way.”

Virgin Trains expects to process 120,000 automatic refunds annually - representing just one in 14,000 of passenger rail journeys made in a year in Britain. 

Virgin Trains links London Euston with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. A separate franchise, Virgin Trains East Coast, runs from London King's Cross to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, but the new scheme does not apply to passengers on this line.

Mark Smith, founder of the Seat 61 website, which provides impartial advice for rail travellers worldwide, said: “Good on Virgin West Coast - I hope other operators take note. It’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.  Automatic payment is the way forward as often the effort required to claim exceeds the benefit.”

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, welcomed the news and called on other train operators to follow suit: “Our plan is to make sure passengers across the country benefit from schemes like this and we are encouraging other to roll out similar schemes nationwide.”

Delay repay - other examples from transport

Trains: Heathrow Express, Britain’s most expensive railway, also has the most generous repay offer: if your train is more than 15 minutes late, you get half the ticket price back; if the delay reaches half-an-hour, you get a full refund of the fare. And for delays of five hours-plus on Eurostar, passengers get their fare refunded - and a free return trip for future use.

Boats: Ferry passengers are entitled to 25 per cent of their fare back for a one-hour delay on a journey of up to four hours, with longer journeys in proportion. In addition the ferry line must provide meals and accommodation if necessary, but can cap the hotel bill at €80 per person per night.

Planes: Under European passenger rights rules, all EU airlines must offer meals and accommodation to travellers whose departure is delayed; the trigger is two, three or four hours depending on the length of the flight. This also applies to non-EU airlines for flights from European airports. In addition, a delay in arrival of three hours or more entitles passengers to compensation of €250-€600 - unless the airline can successfully reject the claim because of “extraordinary circumstances,” such as a strike, bad weather or air-traffic control failure.

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