Record complaints in first year of privatised railways

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In the first full year of rail privatisation, complaints in southern England - including from customers on troubled South West Trains - have soared to their highest level of the decade.

According to figures released yesterday, a total of 1,024 complaints were received by the South of England Rail Users' Consultative Committee, the passenger watchdog, in the 12 months to the end of March 1997.

This total was 56 per cent up on the 1995-96 figure and the highest of the 1990s. The latest figures include February and March 1997 when South West Trains cancelled 39 trains a day because of driver shortages.

SWT was forced to introduce an emergency timetable in February and was fined pounds 750,000 in the same month for cancellations and delays by the franchising director - who let the service to bus giant Stagecoach in 1996.

The committee said complaints about reliability had shown a significant increase in the final quarter of 1996-97. "Much is attributable to the recent problems experienced by South West Trains," the committee added.

SWT was not the only victim of passengers' ire. Another privatised company, Connex South Eastern, was targeted for its decision to cut train lengths - which led to overcrowded carriages on many routes.

Save Our Railways, the anti-privatisation lobby group, said the rapid rise in the level of complaints was "unacceptable". Keith Bill, the group's national secretary, called for "radical changes to be made to the rail industry after the election - whoever wins power."

He added: "The message from commuters is now coming through loud and clear. Commuters are fed up with high fares, overcrowding and cancellations."

Individual rail companies do not normally give details of the complaints made directly to them - which usually far exceed the number made to both the national and regional rail users' committees.

However, SWT broke with tradition and admitted receiving more than 28,000 complaints for the first year in private hands. The company claimed that this was 1,500 less than was received by British Rail - but admitted the figure did not include the worst period of disruption in February and March.

"The increase in the number of complaints was not just down to South West Trains. We have been running a full service since April and have tried to be as helpful as possible to our customers," said a spokeswomen for the company.