If we all claimed compensation, rail companies just might learn their lesson

You must keep the faith. Yes, even when they send vouchers, not money

If you’ve been on a delayed train recently, the chances are you’ve been pretty generous to the train company that messed you around. I mean, sure, you might have complained a bit to your friends, perhaps had a small social media rant about the crappy service. But according to the rail watchdog, the Office of Rail Regulation, three-quarters of us don’t claim the compensation we’re entitled to from our delayed journeys. Almost 70 per cent of us have never claimed at all, and unless you’re all using trains which don’t mysteriously need a rest of up to 90 minutes around Preston before embarking on the arduous trip south to Warrington Bank Quay, you’re letting the train companies off the hook.

I say you, because it definitely isn’t me allowing £100m of compensation to go unclaimed. I am one of the 11 per cent who always or usually claim. Actually, I am in a smaller unmeasured number of people who would rather walk from London to Wakefield than fail to claim for a delayed train journey there. And I don’t claim because I’m abnormally stingy. I claim because I think it’s good for their corporate souls. If they screwed up, there should be a small act of penance to encourage them to try harder next time, and not run out of drivers, or lose the keys, or whatever. And if you all join in, it’s more likely to have an effect.

The trouble is, the train companies have embarked on decades of compensation obfuscation. They all have different terms and conditions, which is why “peak time” is now more difficult to define in a sentence than Higgs boson. Each train company has its own compensation rates, but most advertise this information like Arthur Dent’s council in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, “Beware of the leopard”.

My top tip for claiming is that pretty much all train company websites have downloadable claim forms lurking behind the putative leopard. Print one out, stick your ticket to it and send it. Chiselling tactics they may employ include demanding that you don’t stick or staple your ticket to the form, only to later claim that the ticket got lost somewhere. They’ll try bludgeoning you with management-speak letters, which use a vast number of words to say nothing of merit whatsoever. Then they’ll wait so long to refund that you might have moved house, or died, before the vouchers arrive.

But you must keep the faith. Yes, even when they send vouchers, not money. Vouchers which you can’t use to buy an advance ticket online, which (as we all know) is the only way to travel more than four miles for less than £10,000. Vouchers that come to the value of £6, because that is the 20 per cent compensation they deem you worthy to receive – and accompanied by a letter of such passive-aggression that you would need therapy if you read it. (Extra tip: don’t read it. That’s why you have a recycling bin. To convert their words into something with a social function.) Vouchers to set against a ticket that costs double or treble its online price – vastly more than your six paltry pounds – to buy at a station.

Here’s what you could do instead: claim the compensation. It’s good for them, and it’s more satisfying than moaning. Buy the ticket you were going to buy online. Then give the vouchers away to someone queuing to buy a real ticket at the station. Because the only reason anyone is forking out crazy money to buy a walk-up ticket is that they’ve had a family emergency. They’re already having a horrible, stressful, expensive day.

This is your chance to make it marginally less horrible. In doing so, you’ll acquire that rarest of things: good train karma. This means that you will mainly be delayed en route to things you never wanted to go to anyway (dull meetings, family weddings and so on). When you’re on your way to something fun, the train gods will remember your act of kindness and reward you. Sometimes, admittedly, they’ll reward you with a little stay in Preston, but that’s only because they think you like it there.