A storm was raging when South Western Railway ordered all passengers to alight. The delayed 18.27 London to Exeter service was an hour from its destination, and torrential rain had prompted the company to abandon the journey.
An announcement promised that coaches would relay travellers onwards but, when the train terminated at Yeovil Junction, no coaches could be found. Travellers would need to find taxis but none were available either.
The conductor reboarded the train and it drove off into the night leaving a couple of dozen people, including an unaccompanied minor, stranded on the platform of a locked, unstaffed station in the middle of the countryside.
South Western’s treatment of its customers exposes discrepancies in consumer protections when it comes to air and rail travel. If a flight is cancelled, or delayed, airlines are obliged to reroute passengers as swiftly as possible, and to feed and accommodate them until this can be done. Passengers are entitled to two free phone calls and emails while they are stranded, and to compensation of up to £520 a head unless the delay was down to an extraordinary circumstance.
Statutory protection for rail passengers was only applied to domestic journeys in the UK in 2019. Article 18 of the Passengers’ Rights and Obligations Regulations EC 1371/2007 obliges train operators to offer meals and accommodation “where physically possible”.
There is no requirement for them to try to ensure that this is the case when deciding where to terminate a train. Compensation is limited to a proportion of the fare for the affected part of the journey, and there are no free phone calls. They may, ultimately, have to cover any costs that passengers incur as a result of the delay or cancellation but in the short term, travellers will need to fend for themselves.
Among the passengers stranded that night was my 16-year-old son, Greg, who was on his way to visit his sister in Exeter. His mobile phone was low on charge after fruitless calls to taxi firms, the electronic help point at the station was not functioning, and South Western’s customer care line had shut at 10pm.
From 180 miles away, I rang every local taxi company listed on Google. Only one had a cab available and quoted £250 for the 50-mile-trip because of the dangerous driving conditions.
A hotel room was the only safe option but most do not accept unaccompanied minors. By 11pm, Greg was facing a night on the station platform in lashing rain. Eventually, a receptionist at a Premier Inn two miles away took pity – as a rule, it does not allow unaccompanied guests aged under 18 – and in a rare example of a big chain putting humanity ahead of terms and conditions, it agreed to check him in.
The manager of a fully booked taxi firm, on hearing his age, diverted a taxi to get him there. Four other stranded passengers crowded in with him as it was the only cab that had made it to the station. They reached the hotel shortly before midnight.
South Western’s staff did not check whether any passengers were vulnerable before abandoning them. Getting to the station exit involved negotiating steep steps on a footbridge over the line, making it inaccessible for those with reduced mobility. Those without smartphones had to rely on strangers to find accommodation or transport.
The response from South Western’s customer service should give any parent or traveller with additional needs pause for thought.
“The decision should be made before a journey, by considering whether your child could cope alone, bearing in mind the possibility there may be delays during times of disruption,” wrote a customer service agent. “We don’t offer specific assistance to children travelling alone, although our staff will always help if approached.”
Customer services has since told affected passengers that their hotel and taxi expenses will be reimbursed, and they can apply for a refund of their fare via Delay Repay. South Western eventually refunded the £200 cost of the hotel and taxi, and I received £10.98 via Delay Repay for the affected leg of the journey.
South Western admits it fell short. “This was a difficult night for staff working on our railway but it is clear that we should have communicated more effectively and made sure that alternative transport and accommodation was made available,” it says. “We are sorry that we fell short on this occasion. We are investigating this incident to learn lessons from what went wrong and improve our processes.”
According to the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, passengers should be assisted if a service has to be abandoned. It adds: “The Consumer Rights Act gives rail passengers the ability to seek statutory redress if a train operator fails to provide a passenger service with reasonable care and skill.”
Passengers with an unresolved complaint can appeal to the Rail Ombudsman, whose decision is binding on participating companies. The service will shortly be announcing details of a campaign aimed at making rail travel safer for young people. A spokesperson for the Rail Ombudsman said it expected train companies “to assist wherever possible to ensure that no passengers are ever stranded without reasonable options”.
The spokesperson added: “The ombudsman is striving to empower young people when it comes to remaining safe on the rail network and will be launching the Young Person’s Train Guide, a campaign which will engage with rail operators and other stakeholders in the industry around the laws and bylaws that govern it.”