I have been shocked to discover a catalogue of misinformation and potential mis-selling of St Albans to London return tickets by First Capital Connect both at St Albans station and on their website.
I discovered it by accident after Norman Baker MP, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, published a national “league table” of the most expensive commuter rail journeys into London.
This was based on asking the National Rail website for the cost of a ticket to arrive at a London terminal at 9 am on a week-day and depart on the return journey at 5 pm. This website is operated by ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) on behalf of First Capital Connect and all the other franchisees.
It is the bible of train times and train fares.
On the basis of the website – which also sells tickets – the cheapest cost of this journey had gone up to £22 after the latest fare rises – putting the cost at an astonishing 45 pence per mile.
When challenged about this on 3rd January, the First Capital Connect head office said that this was wrong and that their cheapest fare to London terminals only was £15. But this was not what the website said. This was not the information which the traveller would see.
My local Liberal Democrat colleague and Sopwell councillor David Poor phoned the national trainline last night and was also quoted £22 over the phone – presumably based on the erroneous website information. So would they have taken over the phone a payment of £22? – presumably they would. And Norman Baker recorded the website as stating £21 on December 18th – ie before the latest fare rise. So this is not a recent error, and there is no way of knowing how long this misinformation and any associated ticket mis-sales have lasted.
But clearly yesterday’s inquiry to First Capital Connect occasioned an overnight panic and this morning (4th Jan) the National Rail website claimed that the cheapest fare was £11. Er – except it wasn’t. Going down the page, it became clear that this was simply the single fare being quoted and the cheapest return fare now being quoted was £20 – two pounds down from the previous day but still not £15.
Likewise First Capital Connect’s own website was quoting £20 as the Standard Day Return this morning.
So I went to St Albans City Station this morning and asked how much it would cost me to travel to London St Pancras on Monday, arriving at 9 am and returning at 5 pm. The man behind the counter said £16 – not £22, not £20 but not £15 either.
What a shambles!
At one level people will have been put off rail travel by thinking that ticket prices are higher than they actually are, and will have taken the car instead. But much worse, how many passengers have been mis-sold tickets at the higher price and over what period? If a supermarket consistently over-charged and wrongly labelled its goods, there would be hell to pay.
“This is now a matter for Trading Standards and the Rail Regulator. Sadly this is not the first time that First Capital Connect have been exposed as over-charging. I also revealed back in September their car park scam where people parking at the station were unable to get tickets out of the machines at the published cheaper day rate when parking after peak hours.
There seems to be a culture of institutional sloppiness – which in this case could have netted them substantial sums of excess money from unwitting passengers. I challenge them to come clean on how long this website error has been allowed to persist.