Rage - A good deal these days is hard to find
- Robin Lee
- 16 January 2007
A good deal these days is hard to find
The so-called service industries are becoming a shambles, as poor regulation turns customers into winners and losers, argues The List’s mild-mannered Gay editor.
Departs Newcastle, 20:40, say the tickets. I glance up at the departure board. Newcastle, 20:40, platform two, it says. Five minutes before, we shuffle up to the tracks. A train arrives at 20:38 - destination Edinburgh - and three weary travellers (two having travelled from Germany to Newcastle that day) clamber aboard for the final leg.
It’s only after we chug out of the station that I glance at the tickets again. Strange, I think, my friends’ tickets say ‘Virgin XC’, and this is a GNER train. Hmm, must be a mistake, because the tickets say 20:40, the departure board said 20:40, platform two for the Edinburgh train, and so it arrived. Except that, as the train guard argues with an American couple behind, it dawns on me that something completely insane has just happened. The GNER train was late, and arrived when the Virgin train was timetabled to arrive, which in turn was running late. Some utter bleeding genius had decided to give them both the same platform number.
As I debate with the guard, state my case, am forced to admit failure, cough up £31.20 for two standard singles from Newcastle to Berwick, take the man’s name and vow to complain, I’m surprised at how far my bile has risen, and how much my hand shakes when I sign the receipt. And as we prepare to be kicked off when we arrive in the border town, to get on the Virgin train running on the same track, five minutes behind, I realise I’ve just been treated like an idiot for making an honest mistake.
‘We think there should be some work done simplifying the fares structure, to make it more understandable for passengers,’ says Robert Samson of Passenger Focus, an independent body set up in 2005 by the Government to protect the interests of Britain’s rail passengers. He agrees that the current labyrinthine pricing structure is making some travellers winners, and others losers. ‘Passengers are sitting there, wondering if the person sitting next to them has got a cheaper deal. There’s that many fares on the go, it’s sometimes confusing for passengers.’
This culture of bargains and rip-offs, and the necessity of prostrating one’s self in angry complaint, is bad for society and its collective blood pressures. It’s hawkish and squabbly, and the only people it doesn’t give stress to are those with too much money to care. Since the privatisations of the 1980s, this phenomenon has spread through the service industry like venereal disease. Companies seek to entice with lollipops of initial offers, and then sting with hornets in the small print - even for the most mundane of purchases, like a train ticket. Staff become immune to appeals to common sense, and standards of service head in ever-decreasing circles.
It’s no surprise that consumer advice and comparison websites like uSwitch.com, moneysupermarket.com and MoneySavingExpert.com (whose figurehead, Martin Lewis - now ubiquitous on TV - was, unsurprisingly, too busy to speak to The List) have bloomed over the last few years. Financial products, phone and internet suppliers, insurance, mortgages and utilities come with a bewildering multiplicity of suppliers, offering manifold tariffs, rates and packages. Who gets the best deal? My guess is that it’s the companies themselves.
Last year, a small victory for consumers was scored by the Office of Fair Trading, which ruled that credit card companies were breaking the law in setting penalty charges above £12. Any charge above this amount doesn’t represent the administration cost to the card issuers; it is punitive. In September, the OFT said banks would have to justify similar charges. Slowly, the ball has begun rolling, and now the clamour to reclaim unfair bank and credit card charges is unstoppable.
Vicky Taylor, a spokesperson for the consumer association Which?, thinks we shouldn’t hesitate to challenge our financiers. ‘We’ve taken legal counsel, and we believe that people are entitled to start the process to claim back their bank charges for up to six years [in the past]. It may take some time - it’s unlikely that the bank will roll over and say, “Yes, have all your money back”. They will probably put obstacles in the way.’ But so far, claims have been settled before reaching the courts. ‘We think it’s to avoid a legal precedent being set. No bank wants to be the first to admit they’ve been unfairly charging their customers for a number of years.’
So, with a heavy heart, I pick up my pen to write those fulminating letters of complaint. If we were treated like adults, rather than donkeys cajoled with carrots and sticks, I might not have to. Goodbye, sense of fair play; goodbye, polite society.
You can contact Passenger Focus on 08453 022 022, 8am-8pm (until 4pm at the weekend), or visit www.railpassengers.org.uk. Consumer advice, and template letters for reclaiming your bank fees and charges, can be found at www.which.co.uk.