What to do if you get stuck on a train

When it comes to train travel in Britain, most of us are quick to note the awful service and poor value on offer, notes Ruth Jackson. But most of us don’t actually do anything about it. Here's how to claim compensation from your rail operator.

When it comes to train travel in Britain, most of us are quick to note the awful service and poor value on offer. But most of us don't actually do anything about it. It's time we did.

You may not know that most train companies have compensation schemes in place. These allow you to claim refunds if your train is late or you don't get your reserved seat. For example, this weekend I spent five hours standing on an overcrowded train on a journey that should have taken two hours. Throughout the journey the guard kept apologising over the tannoy for the terrible conditions, but at no point did he mention that everyone on that train was entitled to a full refund. I suspect that there is a vow of silence among train company staff when it comes to compensation schemes. So here's what you need to know.

National Rail's conditions of carriage' set out the minimum refund and compensation that you are entitled to. You can claim at least a partial refund on your ticket for a range of problems. Maybe you paid for first class, but had to sit in standard due to overcrowding. Or perhaps a standard seat reservation wasn't honoured, in which case you're entitled to a refund of any reservation fee. You can also claim compensation if you could not find a seat at all.

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These rules also set out the minimum compensation for delays. If you are over an hour late to your destination station you can claim at least 20% of the price of a single ticket, 10% of a return ticket, or 20% of the price divided by seven if you are using a weekly season ticket. For longer season tickets, see the box below. These are just the minimum amounts most train companies go above and beyond these in their Passenger Charters. For example, East Coast who ruined my weekend offer a 100% refund on a single ticket and 50% of a return if you are stuck on one of their trains for over an hour longer than you should be.

If you want to know fast what you are entitled to, Which? has launched a tool where you just tap in the name of your train firm and the length of your delay and it will instantly tell you how much you can claim and how to claim.

Obviously, the train companies aren't too keen on paying out all this money. So they have found ways around their own charters. For example, if the delay is beyond their control', they won't pay. Even if they cancel a train and give you a little bit of notice ie, the day before they may not pay. In most cases you won't get cash back anyway it'll be National Rail vouchers instead. Nonetheless, why not ease the pain of a bad journey by getting a bit of compensation? If we all claim more often, the train firms might even start to treat us all a bit better.

How to claim if you're a season-ticket holder

Annual or monthly season-ticket holders are covered by the Department of Transport's Delay/Repay scheme. This scheme was introduced to allow season-ticket holders to claim compensation for travel delays as if they were travelling on a single or return ticket. Delay/Repay is being introduced to routes as franchises come up for renewal. At present the following companies use it: Southern; East Coast; London Midland; CrossCountry; East Midlands Trains; First Capital Connect; National Express East Anglia, and Chiltern. From this summer, Southeastern will also operate Delay/Repay.

The obvious downside for commuters is that compensation only kicks in if your train is more than 30 minutes late. Commuter trains are frequently 20-25 minutes late, but over 30 minutes is rarer. But if you do have a season ticket with a Delay/Repay operator it's worth making a claim when your train is over 30 minutes late over the course of a year that could add up to a hefty discount on your ticket. Just be aware that you have to submit your claim within 28 days of the delay occurring.

Train companies that haven't adopted Delay/Repay still use the old system. That means season-ticket holders get an automatic discount when they renew if the company's service as a whole does not meet punctuality or reliability standards.

The trigger levels for these discounts differ from company to company, but if they fail to meet one or other of the standards, season tickets are discounted by 5%. If they fail to meet both, season ticket renewal prices drop by 10%. Unfortunately for passengers, train companies are very good at massaging their results so that they don't fall below both standards. Last Christmas Southeastern was accused of cancelling more trains than it needed to during the bad weather for just that reason.

The companies that are still operating the old system are: Arriva Trains Wales; c2c; Chiltern; First Great Western; First ScotRail; First TransPennine Express; Northern Southeastern (until this summer), South West Trains and Virgin Trains.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings accounts and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance.

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping, among many other titles both online and offline.