Botched Elton John train journey leads to breach of Fair Trading Act

Businessman Roger Sutherland has been convicted and fined $45,000 in the Christchurch District Court today and ordered to pay more than $26,000 in reparation on 11 charges of breaching the Fair Trading Act.

Mr Sutherland is the former company director of Racing Tours & Promotions Australasia, which has been struck off since June.

He was found guilty of promoting and selling tickets for a return train journey from Christchurch to Dunedin for an Elton John concert, when he knew in advance no train would be available.

Promoters must ensure definite arrangements are in place before they promote an event or accept money for services, Commerce Commission consumer manager Stuart Wallace says in a statement.

“What made this offer so attractive was that it was to be made by train, which offered a spacious social environment and the opportunity to sit at tables. It is unlikely Mr Sutherland would have had the same number of bookings at the price customers did pay if they had known they would be travelling by bus,” Mr Wallace says.

In February 2011 the company, which traded as Rail Tours, began advertising a Rail Tour to the November concert. The journey was to start in Christchurch and make stops along the way to collect additional passengers.

Passengers paid up to $219 per train ticket. For an additional $60 to $65 for a Celebration Class ticket, a meal and drinks would be provided, together with guaranteed table seating on the train.

However Mr Sutherland was made aware, as early as February 1, that KiwiRail could not guarantee seats. He continued to advertise for new customers.

In July 2011 KiwiRail advised Mr Sutherland that no carriages were available for the date requested. Mr Sutherland continued to take bookings following that date. He advised customers just three days before the concert he would be substituting a bus instead of the train ride.

More than 220 tickets had been sold, totaling about $50,000. Only a few customers who cancelled received refunds from Mr Sutherland for this late notification of a change in plans. For more than 40 other customers who sought to cancel, no refunds were forthcoming.

Judge Paul Kellar says he was satisfied the offending was deliberate. The judge also says Mr Sutherland also appeared to have concealed the truth about the change from train to buses until the last moment.

With no time to make alternative arrangements, most concertgoers continued with their plans and travelled by bus.

Despite enduring the vastly inferior quality and nature of the transport that was ultimately provided, no customer received compensation for the change in plans.