Transport: Rail regulator wants power to enforce higher standards

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The Independent Online
The train information system is `simply not good enough', says the rail regulator. Barrie Clement finds the industry may have to revert to letting people ring local stations for information.

Train operators could face tough new standards after it was found that on average one in ten passengers were given the wrong travel information.

Some two in ten inquirers are misled when tickets are bought in advance and when passengers ask about Sunday travel the proportion rises to one- third. Two in ten disabled passengers are not given the correct facts to meet their special needs.

John Swift, the rail regulator, said the performance of the operators was "simply not good enough" and he is to seek enforceable standards for ticket sales and information.

Having set targets for the number of calls to be answered by the National Rail Enquiry Service, Mr Swift said he was now anxious to ensure that customers were not misled. He derided any suggestion that there were insurmountable complexities: "After all, this is not rocket science," he said. It should be possible to provide accurate, up-to-date information about scheduled services.

Mr Swift indicated that he would call on companies to consider providing public lines to individual stations so passengers could get accurate local information not available nationally.

The survey on which Mr Swift based his comments was carried out by a team of "mystery shoppers" in January and March this year. He insisted they did not use "trick questions" and concentrated on the genuine needs of passengers.

Some 3,705 inquires were made at staffed stations and 894 at telephone information bureaux. "The results of this survey ... will now be used to set standards of performance which operators will have to meet if they are to avoid enforcement action."

Unsurprisingly, rail staff achieved the highest success rate on straightforward transactions for immediate travel where there were no alternative route or fare options. Here, 96 per cent of questions were answered accurately. The worst performance was registered for advance purchases involving travel on Sunday with Apex or other quota-restricted options available - 34 per cent of answers were defective.

Researchers found no systematic bias against rival train operators and customers were just as likely to be undercharged as overcharged.

Mr Swift said there would be further investigations and the priority of the next survey, to be carried out as early as possible next year, would be to collect data so that performance league tables for operators could be drawn up.

Better news for the industry came when the regulator announced that the national inquiry service had met its 90 per cent target for answering queries. The companies were fined pounds 250,000 for failing to reach the target from 17 August to 14 September and a further pounds 100,000 for underachieving from 15 September to 12 October. A proportion of 92 per cent was achieved between 13 October and 9 November.

Ivor Warburton, of the Association of Train Operating Companies, insisted that sales staff would do a better job next time they were tested and acknowledged there was a need to invest more in information technology. He pointed out that the regulator had commented that rail staff did a good job.