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Rail users furious as advance fare refunds refused despite coronavirus lockdown – your rights explained

Rail users furious as advance fare refunds refused despite coronavirus lockdown – your rights explained

Rail passengers with cheap advance tickets have been left furious after being refused cash refunds despite being unable to travel because of the English coronavirus lockdown.

Under restrictions in England that run from 5 November until 2 December 2020, you must avoid travelling unless for work, education or for other legally-permitted reasons; meaning many are unable to use pre-booked train tickets.

Existing rules mean travellers can get refunds on most train tickets – though an admin fee of up to £10 can be charged – but this doesn't apply to advance fares. See below for more on your refund rights.

Instead, these passengers can only get fee-free changes to tickets or a travel voucher or credit note that's valid for up to a year. They cannot get a full cash refund.

But those with these tickets have hit out at the policy, with some saying they won't be able to complete journeys at another time and won't use the credit in time.

See Coronavirus Life-in-Lockdown Help for information on cancelled events, train refunds, supermarket restrictions, MOTs and more.

What are rail users saying?

On Twitter, one rail passenger called Jessica asked rail ticket seller Trainline if she could have a full refund for a ticket she had booked for travel on 28 November 2020.

Trainline told her she could change the journey, but she said: "I'm currently pregnant and have no plans to make the trip to Edinburgh (or anywhere) post-lockdown due to the increased risk and getting closer to giving birth. Is there no way of receiving a refund for these tickets given my circumstances?"

Another traveller, Sarah, tweeted rail firm LNER saying: "I'm due to travel to see family on Friday – London to York – then return Monday. It's now illegal to travel with lockdown. I spoke with someone on chat who said a refund is not possible even though we've been told travel is not allowed."

When LNER told her she couldn't receive a cash refund, she said: "I wouldn't be making this journey again and it's now illegal if I was to, so why doesn't this warrant a refund?"

Another rail user, Katie, tweeted Avanti West Coast to say: "Absolutely ridiculous I couldn't get a full refund on my tickets due to lockdown."

Who can get a rail ticket refund?

Customers can get a refund on most rail tickets, though you may be charged an admin fee of up to £10. These rules aren't Covid-specific and apply at all times. Tickets included are as follows:

  • Anytime fares

  • Off-peak fares

  • Super off-peak fares

The deadline to claim these refunds is four weeks after the last day the ticket was valid, provided the ticket was not used.

Advance fares, on the other hand, are non-refundable. A new temporary policy was introduced last month, which means customers affected by coronavirus restrictions can now make changes to advance fares free of charge.

This policy applies if you purchased tickets before 1 November 2020. Under it, you can change the time and date of travel or get a credit note to use in the next year at no extra cost. But you cannot get a refund, even with an admin fee.

Season ticket refunds work differently. During the first coronavirus lockdown, flexible refund rules allowed you to backdate refunds for season tickets you were unable to use by up to eight weeks.

But this has now reverted to the normal rules, and you can only backdate claims if you can prove that illness prevented you from travelling. A full explanation can be found on the National Rail website.

What to try if you can't get a refund

There are no guarantees of success, but here's how to try and get a refund from the rail operator or third-party ticketing site.

1. Formally complain to the ticket seller. Explain that it's currently illegal for you to travel and that you believe you should therefore be entitled to a full cash refund.  

Watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) wouldn't comment specifically on advance tickets when we asked it, but did say that if a lockdown law prevents a contract from being performed you should be entitled to a refund.

The problem is the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train firms, told us it only provides cash refunds where it cannot perform a service, and in the case of lockdown, it's still operating routes. 

2. Take your complaint to the Rail Ombudsman or Transport Focus. If your complaint is about a rail operator, you can take it to the Rail Ombudsman. You can only do this after you have given the operator 40 working days to try and resolve the complaint or if you have received a "deadlock" letter from it ,which means it cannot take your complaint any further. You can contact it by phoning 0330 094 0362 or by emailing info@railombudsman.org.

The Rail Ombudsman's decisions are binding, meaning it can force rail firms to pay out to consumers.

However, you can't take complaints to the ombudsman about third-party ticketing sites. If your complaint is about an independent seller, you'll need to contact Transport Focus.

3. Report the firm to the CMA. If you have no luck with the firm itself, you can also report it to the CMA by emailing it. You likely won't get an individual response, but it can collate complaints to consider if wider action is necessary.

4. Try chargeback or Section 75. These are ways of getting money back via your debit or credit card firm. However, there's no guarantee of success, particularly because in most cases rail providers are still operating. This means you can technically still get the service you paid for, although it might be worth a try. 

Under chargeback – which isn't a legal requirement, just a customer service promise – your bank will try to get money back from the bank of the firm you bought from. This applies to debit card purchases and credit card purchases of under £100. You need to claim within 120 days. Also be aware that even if you're paid the money, the firm can sometimes dispute it with the bank and the money may later be clawed back.

Alternatively, under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, if you pay for something costing between £100 and £30,000 on a credit card, the card firm's equally liable if something goes wrong. See our Chargeback and Section 75 guides for full info.

5. Your last resort is to go to court. You could pursue a case via the small claims route, but you'd need to carefully weigh up if it's worth the hassle and the cost of between £25 to £300, although this is refunded if you win. See more in our Small Claims Court guide.

What do rail firms say?

The RDG said: "Following the Government's decision last month, people with a non-refundable advance ticket bought before the lockdown announcement on 31 October no longer have to pay a fee to change their journey.

"Retailers are continuing to process claims for refundable tickets that are no longer needed, on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds paid out since March."

Trainline, which is an independent ticket seller, added: "We want to make this easy for our customers, so we're allowing those who booked journeys before 1 November for travel between 1 November and 2 December to hold off rebooking their new journey until they know when they will be able to travel.

"This means customers don't need to do anything for now, as even if the date of travel for their original journey has passed, they have up to six months from that date to rebook their journey without a fee. Impacted customers have been contacted with further details."