Fines in train over phones left ringing

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Train companies are set to be fined hundreds of thousands of pounds by the rail regulator after a week where one in four calls from passengers using the telephone enquiry service went unanswered.

Executives at the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), which administers the system, admit that fines are "likely" and blame an unforeseen "surge" in calls for the poor results.

The admission flies in the face of assurances made last month by Ivor Warburton, a director of Virgin Trains and chairman of Atoc, that the service would hit the targets set.

The performance of the National Rail Enquiry Service is being monitored by John Swift QC, the rail regulator. Mr Swift decided to act after receiving the figures from 25 private rail operators, which showed that 49 per cent of calls went unanswered in April and 35 per cent of calls made were not taken in May.

In the first week under scrutiny, beginning 17 August, only 75 per cent of calls were answered, despite 30 extra operators being hired. In the next seven days, the service still failed to meet the regulator's target of restricting the number of unanswered calls to 1 in 10.

In the first fortnight of the penalty period, telephone operators managed on average to take 82 per cent of all the incoming calls. Unless this improves, the privatised rail companies will face a fine of pounds 550,000. Even if the service manages to meet the regulator's target of 90 per cent for the next two weeks, the penalties will top pounds 200,000.

"It is very, very difficult to recover from one or two days of heavy demand," said Alec McTavish, director of operations at Atoc.

"In the first week we had to deal with 1.4m calls, which was a record. What we did not know was that the August bank holiday would generate so many enquiries."

Atoc admits that it would need to answer 98 calls out of every 100 for the next two weeks in order to avoid financial penalties. Given that the service has only once met the 90 per cent target since Atoc took over last year, executives admit that such high standards "probably will not be reached in the next two weeks".

The system has been handling more than 1 million calls a week - up by more than 200,000 on last year's figures - but has seemed incapable of taking many more enquiries. Train managers are also pointing out that because of the funeral arrangements for Diana, Princess of Wales, the system may have been subjected to "unreasonable" numbers of calls.

Another problem for Atoc is that the rail regulator has decided not to rescind his "enforcement order" at the end of the four-week period, which ends on 14 September. This means that the service will continue to be fined indefinitely until the regulator's target is regularly reached.

Atoc executives have begun to question the policy of fining company's for poor customer service. "We have industry targets that are much higher than the regulator's own ambitions... but it will take time to get there. You have to ask whether it is worth fining companies in the meantime," said Mr McTavish.

The privatised rail companies would like to introduce a computerised voicemail system that would place callers in a queuing system - although the regulator has argued that if this were adopted, a freephone number should be used so that passengers were not charged while waiting for an operator.

Rail campaigners pointed out that the passengers would be put off using rail, instead of the roads if they could not get information out easily. Jonathan Bray, campaigns director of rail pressure group Save Our Railways, said: "The telephone service has fallen apart because the privatised rail companies have sub-contracted the service to cut-price operators on the basis of cost and not quality."

A senior source at rail regulator's office said that companies would be fined if they failed to meet the targets. "We have to wait for the four-week period before we make any statement," said one official.