Passenger Rail

First Great Western accused of rorting customers

Newbury railway station. Photo: Chris J Wood / Creative Commons

A Channel 4 sting operation has triggered an uproar in the British media over alleged ticket rorting by rail operator First Great Western.

Channel 4’s program Dispatches sent an undercover reporter for training at Newbury station in Berkshire, roughly 80km west of London, as part of a documentary on passenger rail aired on June 1.

A trainer from First Great Western, which manages over 200 British railway stations including Newbury, reportedly told the undercover journalist not to offer customers the cheapest ticketing option in some cases.

For some journeys, a single ticket each way is cheaper than a return ticket. In other cases, a journey that is split into two smaller trips can be cheaper than a single ticket.

While customers are allowed to use these ticketing options, they are not always offered those options by the person selling the ticket, the program alleged.

One exchange captured through a covert recording by the reporter showed evidence of such a claim:

Trainer: “From Reading to London it’s cheaper to do a single in and a single back. Fact, alright? However, don’t do it, ‘cos it’s about £2 difference, and you’re just causing problems for everybody else. Okay, because if you do it, what’s the customer going to expect every day? Everybody to do it.’

Undercover reporter: “But shouldn’t we really do it, because £2 a day, that’s £10 a week?”

Trainer: “There’s a line to draw. There’s a line to draw guys and that’s one we do draw because £2, yes, I understand where you’re coming from, absolutely, but we draw a line.”

This trainer reportedly came back to the undercover reporter later in the day to correct himself, saying ticket operators should follow Association of Train Operating Company rules and offer customers the best deal.

But there was more controversy on the subject of split tickets. In one exchange with her colleagues, split ticketing (which is a legal option for customers), was described as a ‘secret’ option:

Undercover reporter: “In training they said that we shouldn’t split tickets.”

Colleague #1: “If they ask then we have to.”

Undercover reporter: “Yeah if they ask, yeah, but you know how sometimes it’s cheaper to – “

Colleague #2: “– a hell of a lot cheaper, but we can’t ever say.”

Reporter: “Why?”

Colleague #2: “I don’t know. It’s a secret, apparently. The secret of the  railway.”

When she asked the station’s duty manager later that day to clarify the rules on split tickets, the undercover reporter received the same response. Captured on covert camera:

Undercover Reporter: “[On] the 05:58 to Paddington, if you do a ticket to Slough, and then a ticket from Slough to Paddington…”

Station duty manager: “We can’t do that. That is split ticketing, and we can get into a lot of trouble with the Department of Transport … There are lots of mixed ideas and opinions across the station as to whether we should be doing it or shouldn’t be doing it. But the actual rules are that we don’t do it unless the customer specifically asks for it.”

Dispatches reportedly spoke to the Department of Transport, however, and says it was told operators would not get into trouble for offering split tickets.

David Sidebottom, from independent transport user watchdog Transport Focus, said the footage showed the ticketing system needs to be simplified.

“The culture in train operating companies generally needs to be about them probing you about what you want, rather than you probing the ticket office clerk. So that’s disappointing,” Sidebottom told Dispatch.

“We want to see the standard raised … [cheap tickets] shouldn’t be a secret. This is about giving good value back.”

Despite the contrary information from the Department of Transport, Dispatch was reportedly told by First Great Western that the information explained to the undercover reporter regarding split ticketing, “accurately reflect the rules every train operator must follow”.

First Great Western reportedly expressed a desire to have the ticketing process reviewed, to make “the ticket buying process simpler and clearer”.