Case Study: Failure to Disembark Passenger & Impact of Complaints Handling

The Issue

The Consumer complained about an incident when travelling using a free-travel pass.

In the application to the Ombudsman, the Consumer explained that they were a wheelchair user and were accordingly provided with a ramp to board the train at the station of origin. At this point they were informed that they would be met with a ramp on arrival at their destination. The Consumer advised that at the destination station they were preparing to disembark, but due to an error, the Consumer was unable to alight. The Consumer states that they asked someone to push the emergency button to stop the train. It stopped and there was then an attempt to get the Consumer off the train for about 10-15 minutes, but it was not possible because the carriage could not be opened due to the train’s positioning in the station.

The Consumer was therefore told that they would have to travel onwards, and board another train back to their destination. They were met on the second arrival at the station by a team leader who apologised and arranged for a taxi, advising that someone would be in touch to discuss the incident. The Consumer expressed feelings of shock, anger and disappointment, relating that the incident impacted their confidence in travelling independently.

The Consumer spoke to a number of senior members of staff but was not provided with a report of the incident. The Consumer further advised they had received a hamper from the RSP which contained things they did not like to eat, so they made contact with the RSP  to note this and advise that they were expecting a financial settlement, rather than a gesture.

The Consumer is dissatisfied with the handling of his complaint because they felt it was not taken seriously enough and no meaningful resolution was provided.  The Consumer sought compensation for anxiety, depression and the confidence lost in being able to travel independently.

The Response

The Consumer received contact with several members of senior staff to reassure them that the RSP were  “taking all measures to understand the full circumstances surrounding this incident”. A  letter was sent offering the details of the Area Station Manager if the Consumer wanted to talk further about the incident, and/or take forward an offer of counselling.

What the Ombudsman did

The Ombudsman discussed the matter with both parties in an attempt to bring them together in a mediated resolution.

The Consumer confirmed that the RSP had apologised for sending the unwanted hamper. However, the Consumer felt that the accompanying monetary offer was insulting and advised that they were seeking the Ombudsman’s maximum award limit to settle the complaint. The Consumer intimated in conversations during mediation that they may have considered a lower amount to settle the claim at that time. The Consumer advised the Ombudsman that they were offered a complimentary ticket as recompense, but they had explained to the RSP that they had a pass which allowed  free travel (within a certain area).

The RSP accepted an error in dispatch had occurred and that the consumer was inconvenienced, however, the RSP stated the Consumer’s safety was not compromised as a result of this incident. The RSP offered a financial gesture to settle the complaint in addition to the customer service gestures and an offer of free counselling for the consumer. The RSP advised that the Consumer had received exceptional customer service demonstrated via senior contact but was unable to provide record of what was discussed in the telephone calls.


The failure to provide assistance was not disputed by the RSP. The RSP’s Passenger Charter provides that a failure to provide Planned Assistance would be compensated with 100% of the cost of the single ticket. As previously noted, the Consumer travelled with a free travel pass, so their ticket was cost-free.

Impact of the Incident

Based on the account from both parties, the assistance failure was compounded due to an error in dispatch. The rail operator has a system in place. However, it is accepted on the facts that the system was not operated in the present case. The Ombudsman noted that the RSP clearly tried to rectify the situation immediately, but the Ombudsman also took account of the fact that this would have been a public and protracted incident, which would have been frustrating and embarrassing for any consumer. The additional journey time was 8 minutes each way, and a taxi was offered when the Consumer arrived at the destination station for a second time. Therefore, although the Consumer experienced a short delay the overall journey time was more than doubled. Further, this was an inconvenience caused entirely by a failure of the RSP and beyond the control of the Consumer. It was also noted that the diverted journey was proposed after approximately 10-15 minutes of failed attempts to disembark, which prolonged the situation and will have put a lot of unwanted attention on the Consumer.

In considering the appropriate award, the Ombudsman recognised that this was a one-off incident which was certainly not a deliberate act. The RSP tried to arrange for the passenger to disembark but for some reason there was an issue both with the deployment of the ramp as well as inadequate processes to inform the driver of the incident. It was then not possible to remove the passenger given the train’s location. However, it must be considered that the failed assistance delayed the Consumer, causing significant upset and has impacted the Consumer’s confidence in travelling independently. The RSP did take action providing apology by telephone and then in writing. However, despite this being an isolated incident and measures that were thereafter to ensure the Consumer was safely alighted later, this was not without inconvenience in circumstances that the Rail Ombudsman understood were distressing, caused delay and necessitated the Consumer to seek assistance from other passengers. The Consumer has also noted the effect it has had on their confidence in travelling independently.

The Ombudsman therefore made a financial award within the middle range of the Ombudsman’s compensatory capability, also being within the bounds of a settlement figure mooted by the consumer as being acceptable to recognise the full impact of the incident upon due consideration of the factors outlined above and within the context and remit of the Rail Ombudsman scheme.

Impact of case handling

The Rail Ombudsman considered that the unsuitability of the hamper and offer of a complimentary ticket demonstrates the RSP may not have exercised proper consideration of the Consumer’s circumstances, or the described impact. For example, the Consumer states that when offered the complimentary tickets by telephone, they advised the RSP that they held a free-travel pass, so would not use them; tickets were sent regardless of the consumer’s needs. The Ombudsman was satisfied that offers were made in good faith, in addition to the counselling offer as previously noted, however, it should be recognised that there is scope for an alternative interpretation in relation to these gestures in the context of the Equality Act 2010.

The Ombudsman concluded that the case handling which was evidenced had not provided a meaningful recognition of the impact that such an incident may have, and that the impact of the incident itself was exacerbated by the way the case was handled and recorded. An additional sum was awarded in recognition of this. Furthermore, the Ombudsman is recommending industry training as to address the gap between listening and empathy as opposed to following processes that this and other cases clearly demonstrate across the rail service network.


Advice to Consumers: The Rail Ombudsman can look into disputes concerning passenger assistance, facilities for customers with disabilities, and discrimination or issues arising under the Equality Act 2010 within its Maximum Award Limit of £2500.

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