BR complaints up by a fifth

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British Rail will stand condemned once again this week by its passengers. Complaints from customers have increased in the past year by a fifth, despite John Major's campaign for better public services.

Rail users are complaining in greater numbers than ever about late and cancelled trains and scruffy carriages and stations.

The rise in the number of complaints will be announced on Tuesday in the annual report of the Central Transport Consultative Committee (CTCC), the official rail-users' watchdog, which says that passengers are suffering because of BR's 'financial crisis'.

The introduction by BR of a Passenger's Charter in March has failed to prevent the railways falling into a 'spiral of decline'. Fewer customers, because of the recession, means less money to spend on services, which deteriorate, thus discouraging still more travellers from using trains.

Commuters in the Norfolk constituency of John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, have switched to cheaper coach services into London or to staying in the capital during the week. Since the late 1980s, passengers on the Liverpool Street- Norwich line have had to put up with persistent delays and old- fashioned carriages while the price of a season ticket has doubled in five years.

Chris Bunting stopped travelling daily from his home in Diss to his job in the City last March, after five years of commuting. He stays with his girlfriend in London during the week and will not be renewing his pounds 3,600 season ticket that has just expired.

'I had had enough,' said Mr Bunting, who experienced 10 hours of delays in one week last year. 'You can forget all those advertisements about letting the train take the strain.'

The CTCC is expected to say that services are suffering because of BR's attempts to make ends meet. In the last financial year it received pounds 892m from the Government and raised fares on average by 7.75 per cent, but still made a pounds 144m loss.

BR is reducing staffing levels in stations, particularly in the North-west of England and the London area. Scores of stations are without BR staff in off-peak periods or have none at any time to help passengers or sell tickets.

Rail-users' groups were promised a year ago that where staff were to be withdrawn, BR would introduce technology to compensate, such as new public-address systems.

But after making the cuts, BR then said it could not afford the remedial measures. At some stations now, if a train is late or cancelled, passengers can no longer be told.

'There's been a mad rush to save money,' said Rufus Barnes of the London Regional Passengers' Committee. 'But stations without staff are a major disincentive to travel.'

Shortage of money means BR is unable to replace old trains, for example on the Kent main line, where between September and January 70 per cent of trains arrived late. One in five cross-country InterCity services, which also use old rolling stock, fail to meet BR's own punctuality targets.

The continuing use of 35-year- old trains also results in overcrowding on commuter lines even though the recession has reduced the number of passengers during peak periods. On the London- Southend line, carriages too old to use are locked and passengers have to squeeze into those in the same units which remain open.

Last week BR said it was not surprised by the level of complaints. The CTCC's report is expected to show that the increase is 5 per cent. If grievances are excluded from a campaign by passengers on a single line last year - which BR argues artificially inflated the 1991 figures - the rise is closer to 20 per cent.

BR, which does not publish how many complaints it receives, suggested that the Prime Minster's campaign had encouraged passengers to register more grievances.

It pointed out that it had slightly improved its delay and cancellation record in the past year and blamed its financial problems on the recession.

Mr MacGregor's cure for the railways is privatisation. He published a White Paper earlier this month which, he says, will bring about a 'high-quality railway system'. However, Paul Przyszlak, a commuter and member of the Peterborough Rail Users' Group, does not believe Mr MacGregor's plan will help. 'I can't see someone like Richard Branson providing services to somewhere like Peterborough,' he said. 'Anyway, who'd buy BR?'

(Photograph omitted)