Customers savage rail firms

PASSENGERS on many private train companies say they are suffering from a poor service, according to a government report released yesterday.

The study is a collection of surveys of customer attitudes conducted by the train companies since they were privatised. The results present a mixed picture. It shows that even the most highly-regarded train companies such as Chiltern Railways and Gatwick Express are failing to meet passenger satisfaction targets.

Cleanliness of trains, seat availability and station information are among the biggest complaints that passengers have, according to the statistics from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf) - the body which sold off the railways.

On the Chiltern line, which runs between London Marylebone and Birmingham, passenger surveys showed the service had got worse in 14 out of 15 categories. Another surprise was the Gatwick Express service, which carries thousands of package holidaymakers each day. Despite being one of the few lines that makes money without subsidy, passengers were unhappy about speed of ticket purchases, seat availability, cleanliness and refreshments.

South West Trains, which runs trains from London through Surrey and is owned by the transport company Stagecoach, was also criticised by its users for poor time-keeping and overcrowded carriages.

Commuters on a large London network, the French-owned Connex South Central, also berated the service for being overcrowded.

The Opraf figures, published for the first time, showed details of whether 19 of the 25 train operating companies had met their agreed benchmark figure for passenger satisfaction in a number of different areas of service.

Each company has different benchmarks and different survey times and no comparison with previous British Rail figures are possible.

This approach was criticised by rail campaigners. "We were hoping for league tables but the way the figures are collected allows for no meaningful comparison," said Jonathan Bray of Save Our Railways.

The passenger survey figures showed that 79 benchmark figures have improved and 58 have got worse. Of the 19 companies, 10 have generally improved, seven have got worse and two are roughly the same.

"This first publication of figures shows a mixed picture and it is too early to draw any firm conclusions," said John O'Brien, the franchising director. "However, it is encouraging to note that there are more results which are better than benchmark than are worse."