Always claim for train compensation
In January this year, 107 trains were cancelled and 289 delayed on the West Coast Main Line between Preston and Lancaster, leaving trains and passengers stranded. And the reason?
Apparently, rats and mice had chewed through cables just south of Lancaster. A month earlier, the Kings Cross to Newcastle service was held up by a swan on the track at Peterborough. This level of excuse making is truly world class.
The level of the service, however, is an entirely different matter. The most recent National Passenger Survey from the watchdog Passenger Focus has revealed how unhappy we are with rail companies.
Almost a fifth were generally dissatisfied with the service, a third said there wasn't enough room to sit down, and 57% were unhappy with the availability of staff on trains. But the real kick in the teeth comes with value for money.
Only 45% of passengers were satisfied on this score, a level that has fallen since last year.
Some services did better than others. Those with the highest satisfaction scores were Wrexham & Shropshire, Grand Central, Heathrow Express, Chiltern Railways, Merseyrail and ScotRail.
Meanwhile, those with the lowest scores included First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia.
So, what can you do if you are unhappy with the level of service? If you are delayed, you may be able to get some compensation. Mike Paul, a 36-year-old city worker from Bedfordshire, makes claiming part of his usual routine.
He says: "Commuting is the most stressful part of my day. When I first moved out of London I was struggling to get onto packed trains and then getting in 20 or 30 minutes late.
"I assumed it was a specific problem they were having at the time. It took me a long time to realise I was going to have to learn to live with it.
"I didn't know I could claim compensation, but I was moaning to a colleague who told me about a website called ihatethameslink.co.uk, which publishes complaints and has a guide to claiming.
"It still makes me really angry that I spend hours standing on horribly overcrowded trains and have to pay so much for it, but it does make me less angry when I send in my claims."
How to claim
The difficulty is that each train company has its own rules and procedures for making a claim. All the companies have to offer at least 20% back if their services are an hour or more late, but some offer a better deal.
There are also rules about how quickly you have to make a claim and the paperwork you have to send in.
Check the passenger charter on the website of the operating company before you buy a ticket, so you know what receipts and proof you will need to make a claim.
You can also find out about deadlines and procedures there, and you'll need to follow them to the letter if you want to see a penny of compensation.
When you claim, it may also be worth making a complaint, to help pile pressure on the company to improve. In the first instance, this should be to the rail company concerned, in writing. If you don't get any joy from that, you can ask Passenger Focus to follow your complaint up for you.
Its helpline is 0300 123 2350. Also complain to your local MP. These things move slower than the average peak-time train, but using the weight of local political influence is better than sitting on a train fuming.
If you're stuck with a substandard service, the only other thing you can do is work on ways of bringing down the cost, which will at least improve your personal scores for value for money.
Always try to book as early as you can - advance tickets cost a fraction of those bought on the day.
Look at the different ticketing options. You might find that two singles cost less than a return ticket. Also it's far cheaper to travel off-peak and arrive at your destination after the morning rush.
Remember to shop around. Visit the website of the rail company and see if its tickets are cheaper than those offered on national sites. In addition, check nationalrail.co.uk for promotions and special deals.
Sadly, regardless of how much cost cutting you do, you still receive the same old shoddy services and sorry excuses. It's enough to tempt anyone to set swans loose on the line.