No compliments from the ASA on advertising of complimentary First Class train service offering

A recent ruling published by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent regulator of advertising, has held that a webpage ad for XC Trains Ltd (t/a Cross Country Trains) made misleading claims about the availability of complimentary food and drink for First Class passengers on Cross Country Trains.

This ruling has significant implications for the rail industry, as it sets a precedent for how advertisers should communicate the value proposition of their on-board service offerings and how any such claims should be substantiated.

The ruling

The ASA ruling on XC Trains Ltd was based on two complaints from train passengers who had frequently travelled on the First Class service but did not receive complimentary food and drink and that consequently challenged  whether an ad, seen on Cross Country Trains’ website, was misleading. In summary, the page featured the headline “First Class, Sit back, relax and enjoy complimentary refreshments” with text underneath stating “Complimentary food and drink – You’ll receive complimentary food and drink on most of our First Class services, keeping you well refreshed until you reach your destination”.

In its response, XC Trains Ltd told the ASA that the period leading up to the complainants seeing the ad (September to November 2023) was marked by “exceptional disruption” due to industrial action and storms. Information and data provided by XC Trains Ltd in response to the complaints noted that it had planned to offer catering on a scheduled rate of between 70% and 78% of services.

The ASA considered that the ad positioned complimentary food and drink as a key part of Cross Country Trains’ First Class offering. It said that a scheduled rate of between 70% and 78% of services offering catering was insufficient to substantiate the overall impression of the ad that complimentary food and drink would be available on all but a few First Class services.

The ASA did acknowledge that the website included the caveat that ‘all items and offers listed were subject to availability, may change or may be withdrawn at any time’. The ASA considered, however, that this was not sufficient to counteract the overall impression that complimentary food and drink would be available on all but a few First Class services.

The ASA therefore ruled that the ad was misleading and breached the CAP Code rules on misleading advertising, substantiation and qualification. The ad must not appear again in the form complained of and the ASA told XC Trains Ltd not to use the claim “complimentary food and drink” unless they held adequate evidence to substantiate the claim.

Legal and ethical issues

The ruling raises several legal and ethical issues for the rail industry and advertisers:

  • How to balance the promotion of rail travel as a convenient and enjoyable mode of transport with the recognition of its challenges to service offerings, including limitations on offering and availability of complimentary food and drink.
  • How to comply with the CAP Code rules to make clear the basis and scope of claims, and to avoid making absolute or unqualified claims that imply a certain level of service or provision.
  • How to avoid exaggerating or overstating the benefits of a product or service, whilst aiming to enhance the reputation or sales of a business.

Practical guidance for rail operators and advertisers

In light of the ruling, we recommend that rail operators and advertisers take practical steps to ensure that their service offerings and any claims appearing across their webpage and other advertisements are compliant with the CAP Code and do not mislead consumers. This isn’t the only time rail operators have faced a run-in with the ASA recently, with Eurostar coming under fire for flash sale marketing techniques earlier this year too. With these in mind, practical steps operators should take include:

  • Reviewing existing service offerings and claims and check if they are supported by adequate and up-to-date evidence that can substantiate any such claim. If not, consider removing or amending the claims accordingly.
  • The ruling also shows that including a caveat noting limited availability is not sufficient to counter stronger overall impressions that a stated benefit will be provided and should be used in exceptional circumstances.
  • Ensuring use of reliable and independent sources of data and information to substantiate claims, and be able to provide clear references or links to the sources.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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