Transport turmoil: A million complain over rail failures

Regulator declares Virgin is worst train operator while Britain's roads more gridlocked than ever
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The Independent Online
COMPLAINTS FROM train passengers about the state of Britain's railways topped one million for the first time in the last financial year, the industry watchdog said yesterday.

Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, reported an 8 per cent increase in complaints, which he described as "completely unacceptable". Richard Branson's two Virgin companies again proved to be the worst offenders among the 1,072,958 written and telephone protests received by Mr Winsor.

In his foreword to the Rail Complaints Bulletin, the regulator warned he would not be palmed off with a promise of improvements in the long term. While investments in new trains, improved stations, tracks and signalling equipment would lead to a better service, he said the work must not be at the expense of "poor and deteriorating" services in the short term. And it should not be used as a "standard excuse for every complaint", Mr Winsor said.

"Many areas of passengers' concern can and should be put right now. There are many things that train operators can do quickly and cheaply to improve the service provided to passengers.

"Improving the quality of information to passengers, both at stations and on trains, ensuring the trains are cleaned regularly and that catering stocks are sufficient, are things that should be happening now. I do not expect passengers to have to make continual complaints about these issues."

Mr Winsor, who was appointed to shake up the industry, was reported to be "absolutely furious" yesterday after his Connex South-Eastern commuter train from Staplehurst, Kent, to London arrived 15 minutes late.

Mr Winsor also criticised rail operators for inaccuracies in the way they collect figures on complaints. Most industry observers believe that inconsistencies mean the official statistics are only a small proportion of the real figures.

Virgin CrossCountry, the worst performer, received 890 complaints per 100,000 journeys. Virgin West Coast, on 730 per 100,000, was in second place, with Great North Eastern Railway in third.

The figures were made up of 737,331 written complaints and 335,627 received by telephone. Nearly 55 per cent of the criticisms were about service performance. The next biggest, around 11 per cent, was about the quality of service, followed by fare retailing and refunds. The statistics showed that almost all the train companies had improved the time they took to respond to complaints.

The large number of disgruntled passengers is the latest in a series of damning reports on late and unreliable trains.

George Muir, director of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said companies were listening to customers and were determined to improve. "Train companies' top priority is to improve performance. We are doing this by investing in new trains, recruiting more drivers and working with other industry bodies."