Rail complaints up 50-fold

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MORE THAN one million passengers complained about their rail journeys on Britain's privatised network last year, according to industry documents obtained by the Independent on Sunday.

The figure, computed for the first time for the Rail Regulator's office, means that 25 train companies receive nearly 1,800 letters and more than 900 telephone calls every day. This is in stark contrast to the hitherto "official" number of passenger complaints which this year was said to top just 20,000. The study, which names the most moaned about rail companies, is to be released by the regulator, John Swift QC this week.

Rail campaigners were astonished by the actual number of letters the industry receives. "The amounts are staggering," said Jonathan Bray, campaigns director of Save Our Railways. "It shows a passenger rebellion is underway."

Topping the list is Richard Branson's Virgin Trains service, with nearly 195,000 letters of complaint and more than 7,000 calls a month. The company's West Coast line has suffered from spectacularly poor punctuality. Until recently, nearly a fifth of trains were "officially" late.

The number of passengers enduring such a poor service could well be far higher than the number of complaints suggest. John Jackson, a lawyer who regularly uses the service from London to Birmingham, said he had given up complaining: "It never seemed to get me anywhere, so what's the point."

Crammed carriages are also proving to be a problem. More than 85,000 passengers on Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) wrote in complaining over the past 12 months. Overcrowding is so bad on the line that executives have asked the Government to extend their licence so they can buy new trains to meet the "unexpected" demand.

South West Trains, which cancelled hundreds of train last year after sacking too many drivers, gets more than 32,000 written complaints a year. Brian Souter, chairman of SWT's owner, Stagecoach, caused outrage last spring when he accused those passengers who complained of having "nothing to do" at the office.

The former InterCity services were the target of most passengers' fury. Chris Garnett, managing director of GNER, says that longer journeys recorded more complaints because customers get "pre-printed forms to fill in every time a train is late". Industry figures show that 325,000 complaints were on these forms.

Brian Barrett, chief executive of Virgin Trains, whose two rail franchises together receive more than 500 letters a day, says the company has a team of people working in a "24-hour operation" to cope with the demand. He questioned whether all letters and calls received were complaints. "You can have passenger inquiries, complaints and even compliments," he said.

Some rail companies encourage people to write in. Antoine Hurel, the head of Connex - a French-owned company which runs two key London commuter services - describes the information as "free marketing". "We want to know what our passengers think," said Mr Hurel. Connex received nearly 47,000 letters from the travelling public and its telephone staff answered 29,000 calls.

Others point out that complaints can help to improve services. Silverlink, which runs services from London to Birmingham, gets 12,000 letters a year. Company spokesman Graham Bashford said that recently the company extended a train service after customers complained of overcrowding.

Until now, the only official statistics have been the total number of complaints collected by passenger watchdogs - not the sum made to train companies directly. The latest figure puts this at a little more than 20,000.

Mr Swift has long considered this an unsatisfactory measure of passenger anger. His officials are planning to produce a league table rating each company on the number of letters it receives.

However, other experts have called for a radical overhaul of the whole system. Sir Alan Greengross, the chair of the London Regional Passengers Committee, said earlier this year: "We have traditionally regarded an increase in the numbers of letters and telephone calls we receive as an indication of increased levels of discontent, but a close analysis of the latest figures suggests a new situation.

"Some train operators are now doing this and it's noticeable that the company with the best on-train notices - West Anglia Great Northern - has also recorded the highest level of representations in the region ... We do not, however, believe this is a valid measure of this company's performance relative to others."