Another Gatwick Express rip-off

Friday 25th October 2019

Spoiler alert: the postman delivered a National Rail Voucher for £6.70 this morning.

IMG_1565.jpgI wrote about the outrageous rip-off fares policy on the Gatwick Express back in May, but the other day I came across another pricing scandal from this past-its-sell-by-date train brand.

I was buying a ticket in the Gatwick Express run ticket office in the station at the Airport and was astounded to see not only was I being compulsorily overcharged by 50% for my journey but a member of staff gave me incorrect information that that overcharge was correct.

It was back on Friday 4th October and I was heading down to Cornwall for the weekend having already purchased an advanced ticket online from GWR between Reading and Bodmin Parkway returning from Truro to Paddington on Sunday 6th October.

Due to no trains running south of Three Bridges on the Sunday (so much for February’s 9-day Brighton Main Line blockade meaning no further major closures for weekend engineering works this year) I decided to drive to, and park at, Gatwick Airport for the weekend and take the train from there to Reading.

IMG_1547.jpgSo I arrived in the very busy ticket hall at about 08:30 in good time to catch the 09:03 GWR operated departure via Guildford to Reading. As always there was a long queue at the ticket office windows, but there’s a whole bank of ticket vending machines (TVMs) available and I soon reached the head of the queue for those and began my screen pressing.

IMG_1564.jpgThere were two options for an off-peak single ticket to Reading; an “any permitted” which would allow travel via London costing £34.50 and the much cheaper “via Gomshall” option I wanted for £19.70. This tallied with my research before leaving home, and that the latter with my Senior Railcard discount would cost a reasonable £13.

I wonder how many passengers are flummoxed by the use of Gomshall as the via point on the TVM screen especially as the 09:03 doesn’t stop there and it’s a somewhat obscure station especially for non local travellers to know about.

IMG_1574.jpgWhen I came to select the tab for Senior Railcard on the screen, it was faded out meaning it was unavailable. I caught the attention of the “floor walking” here-to-help-you-high-vis-wearing GatEx member of staff nearby and asked him how I could get the Senior Railcard tab to be “live” for my journey to Reading via Guildford to which he told me “Senior Railcards aren’t valid until 09:30”.

IMG_1578.jpgWhen I protested this was not the case – Senior Railcards are valid for journeys within the London & South East area at the time when an Off Peak Day Return becomes available rather than a blanket rule.  He was quite adamant: “from Gatwick the start time is 09:30 and you’ll have to catch the next train to Reading at 10:00” for my Railcard discount to be available.

IMG_1573.jpgThere was no alternative but to pay the £19.70 as I had to catch the 09:03 to make my Cornwall bound connection in Reading. Still mystified by the “computer says no” attitude of the TVM as well as what I felt was wrong advice from the floorwalking GatEx ticket expert, I asked the on board GWR guard/train manager when he came round to check tickets on the 09:03 journey when my Senior Railcard was valid from and he gave the even more incorrect reply “from 10:00”.

All this advice is of course complete bunkum. Senior Railcards are available for travel after 09:00 (for travel wholly within the London and South East area – for journeys to, and completely, outside of that area, they’re valid at any time) but there are restrictions from Gatwick into London (and within the London area) where the peak hour is deemed to continue until 09:30; but crucially there is no restriction for journeys such as Gatwick to Reading via Guildford.

IMG_1571.jpgTVMs are programmed to overcharge passengers like me buying tickets before 09:30 – in my case £19.70 instead of £13. This is a right royal rip off; not helped by completely false information being given out by staff members, wrongly claiming the TVM is correct, and whose job it is to know the rules and regulations. What hope have passengers got?

I took the matter up with Gatwick Express when I returned home after the weekend on Monday 7th October explaining the whole experience in writing and asking for a refund of the additional £6.70 I’d been forced to pay.

I received the following email back by return:

Dear Sir/Madam

We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. 

Please accept this acknowledgement as confirmation that we have received your query. We have received a large number of enquiries as a result of the national power outage which occurred on August 9th and so you may experience a delay in receiving a response. We thank our customers for their patience.

There is no need to chase us for a reply as we will get back to you as soon as we can and our aim is to provide a full response within 20 working days. Please do not reply to this email.

You may also refer to our FAQs at https://www.gatwickexpress.com/help-and-support/contact-us/faq

Kind regards

Gatwick Express Customer Relations

Bearing in mind the power outage had no impact on Gatwick Express back in August, it seemed strange two months on to still be using this as an excuse for tardy responses, but of course, passengers in the know, know that GatEx is the same company as Thameslink (which did suffer major disruption from the loss of power) when it comes to Customer Relations, but when it comes to ticket pricing the official line is they’re completely different operators to justify the extortionate fare differentials and restrictive ticket inter-availability.

In the event, notwithstanding the untimely lowering of expectations of a timely reply, I received a fuller email reply from Linda A nine days later on 16th October when she wrote:

Dear Mr French,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your recent purchase at Gatwick Station. I am sorry that you were unable to apply your Railcard discount to your tickets.

As the Off Peak times vary on different routes, the Ticket Machines are set up in such a a way that you are unable to  purchase and Off Peak ticket prior to 09:30. This is to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare.

I can see that the 09:03 service is Off Peak and therefore I would be happy to send you 6.70 in National Rail Vouchers .Before I am able to do this could you also please send us a screenshot of your Railcard?

For future journeys if you need an Off Peak Ticket prior to 09:30 we would advise you to purchase the ticket in advance online for collection at the station. This will avoid any additional costs for yourself.

We look forward to hearing from you, and once again please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused.

Kind regards,

Linda A

Linda’s advice to buy online is a standard get out used by GTR to complaints of this kind. I’ve received the same reply when I’ve pointed out the TVM at Hassocks doesn’t allow Senior Railcard discounts for journeys to stations outside London and the South East leaving before 09:00.

It’s an even more ridiculous retort with regard to an airport station where many passengers are returning from a holiday abroad … imagine the scene in the hotel on the Costa Del Sol at the end of a holiday – “have we got all our bags packed dear?”; “yes, all packed but I must just go on line and buy our tickets for the train home to Reading for when we land at Gatwick as GTR’s computer programmers are too lazy to amend the software so it can enable a Railcard discount by destination chosen in addition to time of day”; “right oh dear, I’ll wait while you do that, no rush as we’re on holiday.”

It also says a lot about GTR’s lack of trust in its passengers that (a) it sets ticket machines up “to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare”…… so it’s perfectly OK that I have to purchase an incorrect HIGHER PRICED ticket for my journey but not OK for passengers to be able to buy a cheaper price; (b) the implications of Linda’s admission I need to purchase my ticket in advance online to “avoid any additional costs for yourself” is that if I don’t buy in that way I will incur additional costs; (c) if I purchase online I don’t have to show my Senior Railcard to anyone, yet Linda wants me to go to further trouble and inconvenience by sending a screenshot of it before she’ll trust me enough to send me a refund of the money her Company wilfully and knowingly set up a system to overcharge me; (d) Linda makes no reference to the member of staff misleading passengers with incorrect information – best to let him continue giving out incorrect advice to passengers, I assume.

I sent a screenshot of my Senior Railcard back to Linda when I returned home from Edinburgh the next day after receipt of her email, on 17th October.

On 20th October Linda’s colleague Corrie Simmonds replied more informally to advise:

Dear Roger, 

Thank you for taking the time to provide a copy of your Railcard.

I can confirm that I have requested for £6.70 cashable National Rail Vouchers to be sent to you. Please allow up to 10 working days for these to arrive.

I hope that this information is helpful. 

 Kind regards,

 Corrie Summers

And, the reason I’m relating this to you today, is that exactly three weeks since I was overcharged I’ve now received the recompensing £6.70 in National Rail Vouchers so finally resolving the matter. What a way to run a railway.

This whole franchise really is misselling at its worst and even more scandalous, the DfT knows it and allows it.

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Roger French

End the 35 year GatEx rip off

Tuesday 14th May 2019

IMG_6273.jpgExactly thirty-five years ago today British Rail began the first non-stop train service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport marketed as Gatwick Express. Class 73 locomotives hauled Mark 2 carriages providing a 30 minute journey time.

Since 1984 GX’s history has been in three almost equal parts: the British Rail era for the first twelve years followed by National Express, awarded the first privatised franchise to run the service in April 1996, which lasted a further twelve years until 2008 when it was subsumed into the GoVia operated Southern franchise. GoVia successfully bid for the new Southern franchise the following year and in 2015 won the notorious larger GTR management contract including Thameslink and Great Northern as well as Southern and Gatwick Express.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 19.51.27.pngThere’s been a succession of train types over the last 35 years notably the Class 460 Junipers with their pointy nosed front ends introduced by National Express from 1999, followed by reconditioned Class 442s and, since 2016, brand new Class 387/2 trains ordered by GTR.

IMG_4069.jpgGradually the bespoke offer of an exclusive Gatwick Express service has been watered down not least the sensible, yet controversial, decision in 2008 to extend peak hour journeys to Brighton to increase capacity on the Brighton Main Line including calling at most stations between Haywards Heath and the coast. This concept was extended further in 2015 when alternate journeys, running every 30 minutes, during the off-peak were also extended non-stop to Brighton replacing the previous fasts operated by Southern between Brighton, East Croydon and Victoria.

In the early days the GX offer included smartly dressed hosts meeting and greeting passengers on platforms as well as selling tickets on trains together with an onboard buffet trolley giving the impression of a premium service. First class seating, especially during the Class 442 era offered a level of luxury travel which was very much premium.

IMG_6272.jpgNow, the whole concept of the Gatwick Express as a premium service must be called into question. There really can be no justification for charging passengers a premium fare for a journey that’s virtually no different to the alternatives. Continuing the facade of GatEx being something special is frankly a deceitful way of fleecing visitors from abroad using Gatwick Airport. First impressions count when you’re a stranger in a new country for the first time; goodness knows what visitors think of the complex fare structure they meet at Gatwick Airport’s bank of Ticket Vending Machines or in the long queue for the ticket office and must conclude they’re being ripped off, which they are.

IMG_2558.jpgAnomalously the team of thirty-six On Board Supervisors allocated to GatEx only travel between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport and it seems to me their sole purpose is to enforce the First Class seating area as other than giving onboard announcements which simply replicate the pre-recorded auto ones and the occasional walk through the train, that seems to be it. If you’re heading down to Brighton from Gatwick Airport there’s no OBS to provide that so called reassurance that applies if you head north to London. If you catch a northbound Southern train from the Airport that’s originated at a station along the Coastway East or West (rather than Brighton) you’ll also have the luxury of an On Board Supervisor for your whole journey, so it’s hardly a premium differentiation.

IMG_3451.jpgPerhaps if the First Class section was more clearly marked such diligent checking (which doesn’t happen on Southern’s OBS-less Brighton Main Line trains anyway) wouldn’t be necessary. When the doors of a GatEx train are open, there’s no external indication you’re entering a First Class area save for the minuscule “1” sticker on the windows. Nothing appears on the doors which cover up the word “First” on the train side when open.

IMG_3393.jpgThen there’s the seating. Although not as dire as the Class 700s on Thameslink, they can hardly be called comfortable. Hard and upright and exactly the same whether in Standard or First Class, save for the flappy bit of papery cloth thing where you put your head – antimacassars to use the official terminology. The seats on the early Class 387 trains used by Southern are far superior than these. Another bonus until buffet trolleys were withdrawn was an on-board complimentary drink for First Class passengers; now ceased.

The tables are frustratingly slimline too, handy to be able to slip easily into the seat but no good for comfortable use once seated because of the annoying gap from seat to table. There is free (data limited) Wi-Fi and one plug socket for each pair of seats but these fineries are thankfully pretty standard now and can hardly be descibed as premium.

When the Class 387/2s were first introduced GTR boasted of their fantastic luggage space, and it’s true they do have a small luggage space at the end of each carriage by the doors but this is nowhere near adequate particularly on peak trains which arrive at Gatwick Airport from Brighton in the morning already packed with commuters, including their folded cycles, meaning seats can’t be used as back-up luggage pens.

It’s usually a complete melee on the busiest evening peak departures from Victoria as returning commuters and outbound flight travellers are mixed up as they all board together.

In the early days when the Class 442s were first extended to Brighton in the peaks the PR people said it would all work fine in the mornings as messages would be relayed on to Gatwick Airport platform staff about where the vacant seats were and boarding passengers would be guided to the best place to wait. Some hope. There’s always a huge crowd congregating around the bottom of the escalator on Gatwick Airport’s London bound Platform 4 despite the best efforts of some dispatchers to use the tannoy to cajole people to spread out along the platform.

As a sop to tourists there’s a four language translation of the “welcome to Gatwick Express” auto-announcement which plays out approaching and leaving both Gatwick Airport and Victoria stations, but it always amuses me that the critical extra message added in 2008 on trains arriving at Gatwick Airport, that “will passengers please note this train will only wait on the platform for a short while” is only played out in English! I suspect no-one has ever got round to thinking it might make sense to translate this too, rather than just the somewhat insincere welcome messages.

So what about the thorny issue of that premium fare; the one that means you theoretically save 2 minutes on your journey between the Airport and Victoria, with GatEx trains timetabled to take 29 minutes and some Southern trains scheduled at 31 minutes.

The Airport to Victoria Standard Class single is £19.90 (£31.70 including antimacassar – aka First Class). A return ticket offers a miserly £2 saving coming in at £37.80 (£61.40 with antimacassar). Another miserly saving, this time just 10p, is available if you use Oyster Pay As You Go or Contactless at £19.80. Travelling off peak instead of peak on GatEx? Tough pal; there’s no discount. The same price applies all day in the land of premium travel that is Gatwick Express.

IMG_6268.jpgAlternatively if you don’t mind a more comfortable seat and take two minutes more for your journey, take a Southern train and pay £3.20 less in the peak (£16.70) with a ticket or £4.80 less with Pay As You Go (£15.10).

Travel after 0900 using Pay As You Go and save £11.40. Yes, the off-peak fare on a green train with comfy seats and taking two minutes longer to Victoria is just £8.50 compared to £19.80 on a red train with Pay As You Go.

IMG_6269.jpgBut why not head to London Bridge on a grey Thameslink train instead? For sure the seats are narrow and very uncomfortable but there really is plenty of room for luggage in the wide aisles and door vestibules and it only costs £11 peak and £9.70 off peak (or £8.50 PAYG).

And if you find this all a tad confusing, remember at certain times of the day GTR run Gatwick Express branded trains on Southern train diagrams so although your cheaper ticket will say “Not Gatwick Exp” you can use Gatwick Express when the Company chooses to run a train called Gatwick Express at their convenience, including the onboard announcements confirming it is indeed Gatwick Express, as opposed to the station signs which say it’s Southern – a regular occurence in the evenings as shown below…

IMG_2706.jpg……or when engineering works send Southern trains to London Bridge, which turn out to be Gatwick Express trains.

IMG_4071.jpgOn the other hand try using a GatEx train when a Southern one might have been cancelled. No chance with the eagle eyed barrier staff at the GatEx platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria where any ticket which doesn’t work the barrier is rudely snatched out of your hand for forensic examination – even when it’s a legitimate cross-London “any permitted” ticket which I frequently use on my travels to and from the north. I find these barrier staff rival Blackpool North for their unfriendly customer service.

Passengers would find it hard to believe the array of train options from Gatwick Airport are all controlled by the one DfT and all contracted to the one train company. You’re bombarded with rival messages in the station ticket office area promoting both Gatwick Express and Thameslink as the best way to get to London. As you can see from the photos below, none of them mention price, nor where in London they go to. And Southern doesn’t get a look in.

IMG_2557.jpgIMG_2552.jpgIMG_2553.jpgThe same misleading banner advertising can be found on Victoria Station’s concourse too. A huge prominent promotional back-lit poster is suspended from the roof to show Gatwick Airport bound passengers to platforms 13 and 14 where in the off peak you can catch the (PAYG) £19.80 “direct” red train; there’s not a word about the green trains which leave more frequently with more comfortable seats (and still run “direct” albeit with two stops) from platforms 15 to 19 just a little further past the escalator and costs less than half price at £8.50 a ride. If a similar practice was used to persuade us to take up pension protection it would be deemed misselling and there’d be an Inquiry. As it is the Government and DfT are not only complicit but direct this financial fare rip off. It’s utterly scandalous.

IMG_2705.jpgAll the more so at Gatwick Airport where regular tannoy announcements play out encouraging passengers to avoid the long queues for tickets and simply tap in and tap out at Victoria but I’ve NEVER heard that extra bit of vital price differential information which could potentially save a wasted £11.30 explaining to passengers the need to catch a Southern train for the cheapest ride. Scandalous.

And don’t forget, if you stay on that red train departing Victoria’s platforms 13 or 14 and travel all the way to Brighton the fare is miraculously the same as if you’d caught the green train from platforms 15 to 19. No premium for Brighton travellers!

Just as bizarre as all that is the current marketing campaign at stations on the Brighton Main Line south of Gatwick Airport to promote travel to the airport on Thameslink, whereas Southern runs at the same frequency and is marginally quicker. These adverts have also been appearing in local newspapers. Why does the DfT allow this nonsense to continue? What a complete waste of marketing spend to only promote half the trains providing the service.

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The same is true for the social media ads for Gatwick Express which were bombarding my Twitter timeline recently. What use are they to me when the train I need, aside from the peak, to get to Gatwick Airport is any train except Gatwick Express?

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An inevitable consequence of these ridiculous price differences is that passengers who get to know the score obviously take the Southern train option, especially in the off-peak when savings are huge, and crowd out those trains while GatEx trains have lots of spare space. It’s extremely frustrating for Clapham Junction passengers seeing half empty (or less) red trains crawl through Platform 13 heading to the Airport without stopping while they have to cram into a packed green one behind.

It’s time to call a halt to all this nonsense which is a legacy of over twenty years ago when three separate franchises were competing for the lucrative airport market – the original GoVia Thameslink; the Connex South Central franchise and the National Express operated Gatwick Express. We’ve moved on from those days and it’s now time to end the facade that is the so called premium service that isn’t Gatwick Express. End the fare rip off.

Happy 35th birthday though!

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Roger French

 

72% increase in train fares from Saturday

That’s a headline to grab your attention for sure. And it’s true; for those of us on the Brighton line and travel off peak into Victoria. GTR have announced from Saturday 1st September it’s back to the bad old days with ticket restrictions reinstated around what trains we can use particular tickets on.

Looking at the range of ticket options available you’d never know all the trains are run by the same franchise, GoVia Thameslink Railway, which in turn is micro-managed by the Department for Transport where all the fares revenue ends up. The poster explaining the reintroduction of restrictions even has a helpful matrix so you can work out which trains to catch and which to miss if you want to save a bob or two.

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From my local station, Hassocks, the off peak ‘Thameslink only’ day return to ‘London Terminals’ (includes travel to either Victoria or London Bridge and stations through to City Thameslink) has been costing £14.80. Following May’s timetable meltdown all restrictions were lifted with ‘Thameslink only’ tickets valid on both Southern and Gatwick Express trains. But from Saturday if you’re travelling to Victoria (where Thameslink trains don’t venture) or you want the flexibility of using any train on the Brighton line you’ll need an ‘Any Permitted’ off peak ticket at a whopping 72.3% higher price of £25.50.

Other increases include 30.7% for the off peak one-day Travelcard rising from £22.80 (‘Thameslink only’) to £29.90 (‘Any Permitted’) while a peak hour return rises 20.7% from £37.60 (‘Thameslink only’) to £45.40 (‘Any Permitted’). The peak hour Travelcard rises 27% from £41.90 to £53.30.

You might well wonder why on earth these huge differentials continue when all the trains are run by the same company. In other parts of the country cheaper ‘one company only’ fares are available where two or more different train companies run on the same tracks. For example on the West Coast Main Line a ‘West Midlands Trains only’ ticket is usually cheaper than a ‘Virgin Trains only’ ticket which in turn are both cheaper than an ‘Any Permitted’ ticket. Similar arrangements apply on the East Coast line.

Train companies like having their own exclusive tickets as they get to keep all the revenue whereas they have to share ‘Any Permitted’ ticket revenue with all the other train operators who might offer alternative journey possibilities. 100% of a cheaper ticket is usually better for profits than a share of a higher priced ticket. And passengers not bothered about flexibility end up with a reduced travel price; so it’s a win-win.

But in GTR land, all the trains are operated by the same franchise operator, and all the ticket income goes to the DfT, so why on earth are these differentials being perpetuated? The cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option was introduced some years ago, ironically when GoVia ran the original Thameslink franchise and was in competition with Connex who ran the South Central franchise. To steal a march on Connex, particularly for the lucrative Gatwick Airport to London market (also contested by an independent Gatwick Express franchise) as well as the Brighton to London business, GoVia introduced cheaper tickets exclusively available on their own Thameslink trains. The same situation continued during the era when the tables were turned and GoVia ran Southern having lost the Thameslink franchise to First Group who renamed it First Capital Connect.

But now, it’s all in one ownership including Gatwick Express where the complete rip-off fare mentality fleecing tourists with higher fares for a less than premium ride is being reintroduced once again. How on earth DfT can justify charging £19.90 to travel on a red coloured train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria taking around 30 minutes (which could well have started its journey in Brighton where passengers don’t pay any extra) and a cheaper £16.20 to travel on a green coloured train taking around 30 minutes is beyond me, particularly when the green train has more comfortable seats. The differentials are even more stark in the off-peak if using a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card when a journey on a green coloured train will cost just £8.30. It’s an absolute minefield for incoming visitors staring at ticket machine screens at Gatwick Airport trying to work through a myriad of complicated options. Not much of a welcome for sure.

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I reckon if DfT thought they could get away with it, they’d withdraw the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option on the Brighton line completely and make us all pay the higher ‘Any Permitted’ prices but in the climate of incompetence surrounding this whole franchise that would be a PR step too far. Thank goodness for small mercies like this.