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18 September 2018

Can train companies really keep my cash? Everything you need to know about railway lost property

From £2 for a filofax to £20 for a laptop, rail lost property fees make very little sense.

By Sam Forsdick

What kicked off as a complaint about lost property fees has sparked a national debate. Adam Howells complained on Twitter that Arriva Trains Wales had charged him £2 to recover his missing wallet and had also rifled through it and helped itself to ten per cent of the cash inside.

Many called out the charges as “theft”, but the rail company were within their rights to demand a fee. According to the National Rail Conditions of Travel, “a Train Company or Rail Service Provider may make a charge (not exceeding £2 per day per item) for storing property and (not exceeding £30 per item) for retrieval of property by the owner depending on: the type of property; and the period for which it has been kept.” Not only this but any property that has not been retrieved within three months can be sold, with the train company pocketing any money from the sale.

Although Arriva is keen to point out that its lost property service “is a non-profit making service and all charges are used to support the cost of administrating the service”, different rail companies use different systems, which makes it complicated for the forgetful rail passenger. The lack of transparency means they have little idea what they might be charged if they should exit the train without their coat. 

“It has laptops and video cameras in the top band and mobile phones in the middle, but the world’s moved on. Video cameras are no longer used and your top-of-the range iPhone is now probably worth more than your laptop. It has Filofax in there too, which really dates it.”

Greater Anglia lost property lists a £2 charge for Filofax, a £10 charge for pagers, MP3 players and CD players and a £20 charge for palm-held PCs, which suggests the system hasn’t been updated for a couple of decades.

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Hewitson says that it is fair to charge a small fee that covers the costs involved in staff time and warehouse costs in order to prevent them being added to rail fares and subsidies. However it should be a flat rate “so you don’t have this weird illogical system where one thing costs more than something else”.

Dealing with lost property is a large and costly operation, as these pictures of the meticulously organised and jam-packed Transport for London lost property office show. Details about the items are logged onto the transport network’s database and then stored in its office in Baker Street. Between April 2016 and March 2017 TFL recorded 143,289 items of lost property on its rail and underground services and reunited 31,295 of those belongings with their owner. This means that the majority of items, 78 per cent, are never returned.

Although the TFL says it donates the majority of unclaimed items to charity, those that still have resale value are sold at auction at Wellers Auction House in Guildford and via the online auction services XS Items and Flog it 4 U. Last year the TFL made £670,022 in revenue from admin fees, unclaimed cash and the sales of unclaimed items from across all its services.

One of the reasons that so many items go unclaimed is because each rail company has their own separate system. What makes things even more complicated is the vast geographical distances over which each system must operate. “Where you leave things may not be where they have been handed in – particularly if you’re on a long distance train journey,” says Hewitson. It might not be handed into the same train company, or station you left it on. So for a passenger it’s difficult to know where to start, who to call and where to look.”

For example, if you were travelling from Manchester to London on Virgin Trains before getting the underground and only realised you lost your bag once at the hotel, you would have to contact Virgin trains, TFL, London Euston station and any other stations the train stopped at along the way to try and recover your lost property. 

Transport Focus has highlighted the need for a more co-ordinated, national system and have been calling for a centralised database to log lost property since 2015. As far back as 2008 the Association of Train Operation Companies told Which? it was creating a “central database of lost property” but there is still no such system in place. Hewitson claims it can provide a solution to these problems and give people “a better chance of reuniting people with their property”.

One company who are hoping to solve this problem is the Excess Baggage Company, which claims its website lostproperty.org makes the process easier for customers. It has teamed up with Network Rail, South West Trains and Southern Rail and, using the type of centralised database that Transport Focus has been calling for, it allows customers to log their lost property online and search for found items across the country. 

However, when the New Statesman called their helpline, the reality was quite different. An automated voice guides you through several options, asking which train you took and where it terminated before eventually directing you to call the the train operator.

Surely a more logical process can be found to help reunite passengers with their lost property.