Caledonian Sleeper operator under fire over fares

Barry Doe says Serco should be investigated over its website, which offers a restricted range of the fares available. Picture: Barry Duffin
Barry Doe says Serco should be investigated over its website, which offers a restricted range of the fares available. Picture: Barry Duffin
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A RAIL fares expert has called for an investigation into the new operator of the Caledonian Sleeper for possible ticket mis-selling.

The controversy follows a move by Serco to launch bookings two months before it takes over the overnight cross-Border services.

It also comes after train drivers expressed “real concerns” about the firm choosing to use rebuilt 50-year-old locomotives to haul the trains in Scotland.

Serco has pledged to transform the Scotland-London services into a “world class experience” after winning the 15-year franchise, as Scotland on Sunday revealed last May.

This will include brand new coaches from 2018.

However, fares expert Barry Doe has raised concerns that passengers might have paid over the odds using Serco’s new booking service and not been offered the full range of tickets.

In what is thought to have been an industry first, Serco’s website was launched in January, even though it will not take over the sleepers from ScotRail operator FirstGroup until next week.

For the first time, the system offers the chance to book journeys up to a year ahead between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Fort William, Inverness and London.

This was initially welcomed by passengers, who have ­complained for years about the difficulties of making reservations.

However, Doe, who is known in the industry as the “Fare Dealer”, has highlighted several problems, such as passengers being overcharged, and not being able to book Sleeper berths if they already have travel tickets.

Writing in Rail magazine, he said: “Serco has got off to a very bad start before running a single train. It seems to be guilty of restrictive practices and possible mis-selling.

“An industry investigation should take place and no company should ever again be allowed to sell in this manner prior to becoming a proper train operator.”

The Scottish Association for Public Transport think tank welcomed Serco’s website but called for the problems to be rapidly solved.

Chairman John McCormick said: “The ability to buy travel plus berth tickets up to a year in advance is a welcome feature. The website is simple and straightforward for sleeper passengers more akin to budget airline websites than traditionally complex rail websites. However, this approach has difficulties interfacing with the labyrinthine complexity of the UK rail ticket systems, which offer a myriad of different ticket types for the same journey.”

McCormick continued: “Clearly, some of the Serco interface problems will have to be resolved quickly by, for instance, offering sleeper supplements for passengers who have bought valid rail travel tickets.”

Serco said its website only sold a limited range of tickets, but admitted this should have been made clearer to passengers. Its spokeswoman said: “As the website was launched so far in advance of the start of the service, it was intended to offer our dedicated product range only in the short term, until the franchise commencement on 31 March.

“We have always made it clear the full range of products can continue to be bought through ScotRail and other National Rail retailers, such as the Trainline and station ticket offices.

“The confusion arose because that was not as clear as it could have been.”

Train drivers union Aslef has raised fears about the “terrible” past record of the locomotives planned to haul the Sleepers north of Edinburgh.

However, delays to their rebuilding has led to Serco first switching to stand-in locomotives, then arranging to keep the ones which currently pull the trains for another six months.

DB Schenker, which owns the current locomotives, said: “We believe in looking after customers – whether they are past, present or future – by helping to ensure the service continues to run, and minimise potential disruption to passengers.”