UK railways: Stop willing an unwilling private sector

Monday 29th May 2017




Clive Efford, a member of the Transport Select Committee and Labour MP for Eltham
At an event for the Labour Party, just before the 1997 general election, the satirist John Bird quipped that rail companies had stopped calling their customers passengers because they wanted to avoid giving them the impression that the companies had any intention of taking them anywhere.

That was in the early days of the botched privatisation, but for many passengers today that joke is as accurate and cutting as it was back then.

It would be wrong to say that nothing has improved; after all, billions of pounds of public money has been invested in the infrastructure to make it more reliable and safer. Despite the rotten experiences of thousands of passengers as a result of the poor services provided by companies like Southern and Southeastern, the infrastructure is as reliable today as it has ever been.

John Bird was correct all those years ago, but passengers do need to be treated more like customers by the train companies. Understanding the plethora of tickets and finding the cheapest fare requires a considerable investment of time on the part of the passenger. It is the same when trying to claim refunds or compensation for delays and cancellations.

I was on the Transport Select Committee back in 2006 when it published a report which highlighted the same issues on behalf of passengers that the committee raised in its recent report, “Improving the Rail Passenger Experience”. The fact that we have not moved on in more than a decade demonstrates that rail operating companies have been taking rail passengers for granted for too long. Pointing to increased numbers of passengers does not excuse the poor customer relations. The high level of complaints only serves to demonstrate that the long suffering rail passenger has no choice and gets taken for a ride, literally.

Our report states that: “ Limited, the UK’s largest third party rail ticket retailer, reported that uncertainty over whether they are obtaining the best possible fare is the single biggest barrier to passengers choosing to travel by rail for a particular journey.”

What company would make the cost of its customers so opaque that it discourages them from buying their product?

I was one of the many thousands of passengers who had their trains cancelled on the day that Storm Doris hit the UK. I was advised to claim my refund via the Virgin Trains website. However, the website page I was directed to did not allow me to register that my train had never even left the station and that all subsequent services had been cancelled. Several attempts to register my request for a refund resulted in me being directed back to the original page, where I was again asked to indicate how much my train had been delayed for.

In the end, I took to Twitter and sent an email to Virgin Trains support, asking for a refund. When that finally arrived, Virgin had deducted a £60 service charge, which they only rescinded after several more telephone calls and emails.

With such a poor service, which is so difficult and time-consuming to access, it is no wonder that two-thirds of passengers eligible for a refund do not claim for their train delays.

Radical change is needed on our railways. A recent report from the Transport Select Committee on Rail Franchising made it clear that the current system was not fit for purpose. The model is not providing competition and the Department for Transport is failing to monitor or enforce rail franchises. The report highlighted the fall in interest in franchises, with fewer and fewer companies bidding for them.

Passenger satisfaction is falling as rail fairs outstrip wage inflation. The volume of complaints, when things go wrong, underlines just how essential train services are to the daily routines of so many people – and, in turn, to the UK economy.

If we are to develop the railway system in a way which meets the demands of rail customers, then we have to stop willing an unwilling private sector, which consistently shows it is incapable of delivering the kind of public services which are required.

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