I thought I had won.
I’ve been trying to get back to Norwich for a few days now. I was due to drive back last weekend, but the heat was already too intense at 8am to justify sitting in a car for three hours, even with the air conditioning on. So on Monday night I took a look at train times, with a view to letting the train take the strain on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the cheapest return tickets would be £85.30 – far in excess of the £39 it costs in petrol to drive there and back.
After playing around with the various train websites for an hour or so, I hit the jackpot: a train leaving London at 06:25 and returning at 20:00, for a total of £24. If I took my bike and cycled either end to avoid using taxis, I could justifiably use public transport, save the planet, save money, keep fit and claim back four hours of my life with productive work and email rather than sitting behind a wheel pointing a ton of metal in roughly the right direction. Big saving, time regained, total win!
On Tuesday morning I called up and booked my tickets, including one of the precious 6 slots available for bikes on the train. I started emailing friends to make plans to meet for coffee. Everything was looking good. But I’ve mentioned trains and winning, you can tell where this is going, can’t you?
I woke up bright and early at 5am this morning, showered, dressed, and hopped on my bike to Liverpool Street station. When I got to the station, I was slightly confused to see no train at 06:25 to Norwich – the only likely suspect was going to Diss. Uh-oh. As I collected my tickets from the ticket machine, I noticed one of the displays.
Trains to Norwich stopping at Diss due to overhead power line failure, with a bus replacement service.
I’ve been on enough bus replacement services in my time. The London-Norwich line must have one of the highest numbers of weekend engineering works of any line in the country, so it’s somewhat amazing that the power lines could even fail. Anyway, the prospect of taking my bike on such a service was not appealing, to say the least. And cycling from Diss to Norwich would be about 25 miles, a bit more than I wanted to do at short notice.
So I queued up at the ticket office, and asked for a full refund on my now-useless tickets. The response was a masterpiece of the state of consumer rights in the UK, delivered with maximum glottal stoppage: “We don’t give refunds for advance tickets, you’ll ‘ave to write orf to National Express innit”. I explained that wasn’t acceptable, and in return was told I could wait until 9am for a manager, but I wasn’t going to get a refund. A form was thrust into my hand, and I was shooed away.
That’s when things all went a bit Keith Waterhouse. The leaflet I was given to reclaim my expenses was a masterpiece of failed social engineering. I can imagine the Strategy Boutique meeting, held in some smokey office in London (the marketing folks couldn’t get to Norwich for the meeting, obviously). “We need to rebrand the Complaints and Refunds form”, says Brand Middle Manager #1, “it’s too negative. Let’s fill it with positivity and happy vibes.” The rest of the brand middle managers nod in agreement, and, fired up on caffeine, start a free-thinking word association game on the whiteboard. “What about Frequently Updated Commentary/Knowledge/Education on Derailments?” says #2, “it’s got a snappy acronym!”. #3 chips in: “yes, our customers are going to be happy that only 1 in 10 of our trains is late or cancelled, so let’s invite them to say nice things! How about ‘In praise of good service’?”
I suspect it was the same team of sharp-witted wags that put together the Compensation and Refunds page on the National Distress website, highlights of which include “a full refund will be issued at any National Express East Anglia ticket office (or any other National Rail ticket office) [...] certain discounted tickets are sold on a ‘no change, no refund’ basis“. There’s no mention on what tickets are sold on a no refund basis. I can only assume that advance fares fall into that category. Or maybe the staff at the Liverpool Street ticket office that refused to provide a refund are lying conniving bastards wanting to save themselves the job of filling out some paperwork. Or, more likely, both options are true. It’s hard to see how the public interest is served with such a lack of transparency and Byzantine system. I guess that’s the point: protect shareholder value for the rail companies, and tough luck on the punters naïve enough to use the trains.
The final moment of entertainment was provided upon calling the customer helpline to confirm refund methods. Upon explaining my situation, I was told I had to write in for a refund. I asked if I could just go into a station for the refund, but was told that it was not possible. The helpful lady on the phone concluded “oh, but you can pop into Norwich station and deliver your refund request letter by hand if you like?“
I politely pointed out I was not in Norwich – problems with the trains, you see.