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Rail Ombudsman launched to tackle train complaints

Rail Ombudsman launched to tackle train complaints

Rail passengers now have an official body they can take unresolved complaints to after the first-ever Rail Ombudsman launched today. 

The free, independent service will have the power to investigate and rule on passenger complaints, award passengers up to £2,500 in compensation and make decisions which are binding on rail firms.

Until now if a passenger's complaint was rejected by a train firm there was no official body to escalate it to – the only option was to go to the independent watchdog Transport Focus, which has no power to force train firms to act.

See our Cheap Train Tickets guide for full help on cutting the cost of rail travel, and our Train Delays guide for your rights if your train's late or cancelled.

How does the Rail Ombudsman work?

The Rail Ombudsman's run by an independent, not-for-profit alternative dispute resolution service, the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman.

It will review your complaint and try to reach an agreement between you and the rail firm. If agreement is not reached, it can make a decision which is binding on the rail firm, provided you agree with it. If you don't agree with the ombudsman's decision, you don't have to accept it and can instead try to pursue your complaint through other channels, such as Transport Focus or the small claims court.

While the Rail Ombudsman has binding powers to make rail firms issue refunds or compensation, it is not the industry regulator, so can't punish rail firms through fines etc. But it will aim to provide recommendations and insight to help improve services.

The scheme is technically voluntary for train firms at the moment, but all those franchised by the Department for Transport are members, which means all rail journeys in England, Scotland and Wales are covered (apart from those on local transport concessions such as Transport for London services and Tyne and Wear Metro).

What complaints can the Rail Ombudsman deal with?

You can go to the Rail Ombudsman if you've complained to a rail firm and you're either unhappy with the final response you receive (sometimes known as a 'deadlock letter') or your complaint isn't resolved within 40 working days of the rail firm receiving it.

It's up and running now and will consider complaints about something which happened from today – Monday 26 November – onwards.

The Rail Ombudsman will deal with complaints about service, including:

  • Delays and cancellations.
  • Lack of seating where reservations have been made.
  • Toilets being out of use.
  • Promised Wi-Fi being unavailable.

It can't handle some other types of complaint, including:

  • Wider complaints about rail services and policy, such as a general lack of seating on a specific route – these will be passed on to Transport Focus (or in the capital, independent watchdog London TravelWatch).
  • Complaints where the passenger asks for more than £2,500 in compensation.

How to complain to the Ombudsman

You can complain to the Rail Ombudsman online, by email or by post.

  • To complain online, click or tap on the 'Complain' button at railombudsman.org and you'll be asked to register for free (this is so you can track the progress of your complaint). Once you've done this, start a new application, select the relevant rail firm and follow the on-screen instructions.

  • To complain by email or post, download the application form and fill it in. You can then email it to info@railombudsman.org or post it to 'FREEPOST – Rail Ombudsman' (that's literally all you need to put on the envelope). 
The Rail Ombudsman covers complaints in England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. To complaint there, you'll need to first go to Translink, the company that oversees NI Railways. To escalate a complaint, you can then go to the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland – email  contact@consumercouncil.org.uk or call 0800 121 6022.

'Ombudsman must learn from the best schemes'

MoneySavingExpert.com head of campaigns Kirsty Good said: "Passengers not being able to get from A to B on time because their rail company has messed up causes daily bouts of missed appointments, cold hours spent waiting on platforms, and has even lost some people their jobs. So it's good to see that a Rail Ombudsman is being set up to intervene when consumers have reached the end of the line with the train company in question.

"MoneySavingExpert has long campaigned for improved performance of ombudsman schemes across the board, and the challenge for the Rail Ombudsman is to show that it can learn from the best schemes and really deliver vital consumer protection in this area.

"Like many ombudsman schemes, the Rail Ombudsman will normally require consumers to wait eight weeks before they can raise a complaint with it. One major way that the Rail Ombudsman could immediately lead from the front is to reduce this to somewhere between two and four weeks.

"It must also be given whatever powers are necessary – by Parliament if needs be – to make sure that all train companies must sign up, that its processes are complied with, and that its decisions are put into action."

'A significant step forward for passengers'

Rail Minister Andrew Jones said: "This is a significant step forward for passengers' rights. This independent ombudsman will make sure passengers are heard and that they get a fair deal when train companies fall short.

"Rail firms must take this opportunity to improve their complaints process and to increase customer satisfaction."

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: "The introduction of free, binding and independent dispute resolution for deadlocked rail complaints is a welcome step forward for rail passengers – and something we have called for over many years... We will continue to deal with many issues raised by passengers that fall outside the remit of this scheme."