Delay Repay Replay

I’ve recently been experiencing the usual rail related havoc you find in Britain, and had some thoughts around  “Delay Repay”.

This train was only 7 minutes late. But the one prior was cancelled, and my total delay ended up being over 30m.

Some Background

Delay Repay is a regulation present in the British rail industry requiring rail franchise operators to compensate passengers if they are delayed by 30 minutes or more. It’s not fantastic when you have a rail network which is so incapable of running on time that a delay of 30 minutes is considered a reasonable wait time, but it gets worse when you realise that the government has to force companies to pay compensation when they fail to deliver on their service.

It’s a necessary regulation though. The rail network itself is public infrastructure, even if the operators of the rail franchises are private. So you need some way to ensure quality control for the people of the public who need to use the rail network to get from a to b, from home to work. The government seems to have settled on Delay Repay as the best way to do this for day to day delays (with moderately high fines for the more egregious displays of incompetence).

It isn’t great that delay repay is required, but I’m glad that it’s there all the same. However, on its own it doesn’t seem to provide all that great an incentive to improve service. I have recently made many claims to get money back due to delays.

How could it be improved?

A Sliding Scale

One of the first improvements I see would be to use a sliding scale to determine how much compensation is due. The government has made some moves to reduce the minimum delay time required to 15 minutes but I don’t see this as good enough (not least because its not yet applied to all franchises). Under that logic, any compensation on a 29 minute delay is the same as that of a 15 minute delay, which doesn’t sit right with me.

I can appreciate that using a sliding scale might make determining the relevant compensation due more difficult, but if you have a granularity of a minute-by-minute basis and use a predetermined mathematical formula then its simple. You don’t even need to know how the maths works, you just plug the numbers into an online calculator and there you go. This would improve the experience for passengers as it will reduce any frustration when you get close to the limit of a cut-off point in a delay.

But even better is it would prevent the practice of strategic cancellation. I have seen some train services cancelled† but due to a “quirk” in the timetabling, the next train available will get me to my destination just before the 30 minute minimum cut-off for delay compensation. I refuse to believe that this is a purely emergent property and not planned in advance. Whether or not it is intentional, if there was a sliding scale, it would be pointless to engineer timetables this way.

† Some of my favourite and also most stupid reasons for trains to be cancelled in are “Maintenance Requirements” and “Lack of train crew”.

Standing Room Only

When you buy a train ticket in Britain you are given a number of options. The largest factor in the cost of a ticket at a given time is whether you want first class or standard class. In any case, I see these as applying to the carriage in which you are seated. The key phrase there being “seated”.

You are allowed to claim delay repay if you are not able to board a train due to it being totally full, but if you can enter it crammed like sardines then you have to pay the full fare. That’s terrible as far as I’m concerned – there ought to be a 3rd class to cater to those who just want to stand and anyone who paid for a standard class seat should be entitled to compensation if the rail company failed to put enough carriages on to account for demand.

Aside from the discomfort, enabling delay repay to work in this fashion should help to improve safety – I can say with experience that (over)crowded carriages are a common source of:

  • Stress – You’ve just finished a hard day’s work and are heading home to relax. Having to cram in with other commuters is tiring.
  • CO2 / “Stuffy” or “Stale” air / Heat – I have often seen people come to faint at some of the worse peak time carriages. This should not have to happen.
  • Safety Hazards – In the unlikely event that something should go wrong with the train, or even some kind of ultimately meaningless panic, you’ve got a human crush in the making. Hell, the packing in can get so bad sometimes I wonder if all it would take was a minor acceleration change from the train engine.

Prohibit bad corporate behaviour

Right now it seems that the delay repay scheme is mostly used to pacify upset customers. It should be designed instead to prohibit the kind of bad behaviour that results in its use to begin with, but to not needlessly punish the company for events outwith their control. Perhaps there should be multiple different compensation schemes depending on the cause.

  • Poor weather? Not the train company’s fault
  • Lack of resources / train cars / staff? Definitely the train company’s fault
  • Trespassers on the line? Not the train company’s fault, if anything the trespassers themselves ought to pay up
  • Conflicting schedules? Whichever train franchise instigated the delay ought to pay up

That might make things more complex to calculate, but in the long run I think that would do more to encourage all train companies to do the right things.

It would also help to narrow down the focus of public opinion. If it turned out that a majority of delays or cancellations were caused by events outside the control of a franchise operator, they can avoid some of the bad press. On the other hand if, even after filtering out uncontrollable issues, the operator is still the root cause of a majority of delays, then the public can better place the blame. It works both ways.

What lessons can be learned?

Though improvements could be made, Delay Repay as it currently stands is a very positive force for customers who have to use the (privately franchised) national rail network. But what of other service industries? Well, as I was writing this, I cam across news that ISPs would need to start refunding after service outages.

These kinds of pro-consumer moves are great, and I would want to see more of them across the board across any kind of business that offers services, not just the classic utilities. And in an era where a lot of moves are being made where things become online services (video, music streaming, cloud software) it would be nice to see guarantees being made up front about this, if not enforced by law.