Rail firms complaints climb to 1800 a day

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The Independent Online
MORE than 650,000 passengers complained about their rail journey on Britain's privatised network last year, according to industry documents obtained by The Independent.

The figure, which works out at nearly 1,800 letters a day, was computed for the first time for the Rail Regulator's office. It is in stark contrast to the hitherto "official" number of passenger complaints, which last year was said to be just 9,753.

Rail campaigners were "astonished" by the volume of letters the industry receives. "The amounts are staggering," said Jonathan Bray, campaigns director of Save Our Railways. "It shows a passenger rebellion is under way. Rail users are not prepared to put up with an industry which since privatisation seems more concerned with corporate hype than running the trains on time."

The study, which names the most moaned-about rail companies, is set to be released by John Swift QC, the regulator, later this month.

Topping the list is Richard Branson's Virgin West Coast service, with nearly 120,000 complaints. The line has suffered from spectacularly poor punctuality. Until recently, nearly a fifth of trains were "officially" late.

Crammed carriages are also proving to be a problem. More than 85,000 passengers on Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) complained in the last 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 trains last year after sacking too many drivers, gets more than 32,000 complaints a year.

Connex South Eastern, one of the key London commuter services, received 24,000 letters from the travelling public.

The former InterCity services were the target of most passengers' ire. Chris Garnett, managing director of GNER, says that long-distance journeys recorded more complaints because customers are "incentivised to do so". "If there is an incident and we know a train is late, we have squads of people who turn up at stations with coffee, mobile phones for people to use and also pre-printed `complaint forms' for passengers to fill in. Just by doing that you invite half a thousand so-called complaints," said Mr Garnett.

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. But Virgin says the figures must be put into "context". "We run about 25 million passenger journeys on our service every year - so the number of complaints is relatively small," explained Mr Barrett.

Some rail companies argue they encourage people to write in. Silverlink, which runs services from London to Birmingham, gets 12,000 letters a year. "It is marketing information for free," said company spokesman Graham Bashford.

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. Last year, this total stood at 9,753.

OFF track

Company Complaints

Virgin West Coast 119,000

Great North Eastern 86,000

Virgin CrossCountry 74,000

Great Western 63,000

SWT 32,000

Anglia 28,000

Northern Spirit 27,000