British Rail draws record number of complaints: Late trains, staff rudeness and lack of information are causing concern. Christian Wolmar reports

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BRITISH RAIL staff are rude, there is a lack of information at stations, and both trains and stations are dirty, according to BR passengers who made a record number of complaints last year.

The number of complaints has risen by more than three and a half times over the past decade, according to the annual report of the Central Transport Consultative Committee, the passengers' watchdog. The report shows that there were a record 8,371 complaints, a rise of nearly 4 per cent on the previous year's total of 8,052. In 1982 there were just 2,333.

The largest number, 1,382, relate to punctuality and there were also sharp increases in complaints about staff conduct (which rose by nearly a half), refunds and claims, information at stations and the environment of both trains and stations.

The chairman of the committee, Major General Lennox Napier, expressed doubts that privatisation would improve the situation. He said: 'Privatisation can only be of benefit with sustained high levels of investment.' He said that there was a gap of pounds 3.1bn between the funding available over the next three years and what is needed by BR to sustain investment to meet passenger requirements. 'Privatisation will not save the Government any money' he warned, 'and the uncertainty it is causing may delay necessary investment.'

The type of competition which privatisation would bring about was already causing problems as a result of the separation of the network in the mid-1980s into three business sectors, InterCity, Regional Railways and Network SouthEast (NSE). Travel Centres had closed at NSE stations like Charing Cross because of disputes with InterCity over who should pay for them and NSE had refused to sell certain types of tickets because 'this generates no revenue for Network SouthEast'.

Timetables were being issued by one sector which did not show the other sectors' trains. For example, travellers from Winchester to Oxford were being advised by NSE that they should change at Basingstoke and Reading when, in fact, there were direct InterCity trains connecting the two stations. Similarly, Regional Railways have been advertising hourly trains from Portsmouth to Southampton when NSE runs a half-hourly service.

The committee wants BR to be able to borrow on the money markets and look at joint ventures with the private sector in order to increase funding.

John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, said the report was 'a major indictment of British Rail'. He said: 'The Government has deliberately ignored the committee's annual warnings as part of its overall intention to allow the quality of BR services to run down by starving them of adequate finance.'

BR welcomed the report, saying that services had improved, but admitted: 'Naturally the committee highlights where we are still not giving people the services we would like to provide. We have demonstrated in many parts of the country that major investment in infrastructure and new trains brings dramatic improvements in performance.'

Central Transport Consultative Committee for Great Britain, Annual Report 1991/2.

----------------------------------------------------------------- INTERCITY ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of trains no more than 10 minutes late - 1991/92 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Target 90 % Best 5 Gatwick Express 95.7 Paddington - Worcester/Hereford via Oxford 90.9 Paddington - Bristol/Weston/Taunton 89.5 Paddington - Fishguard boat trains 88.2 Midland Main Line 88.1 Worst 5 Euston - Blackpool/Carlisle 72.9 Euston - Manchester 72.6 Euston - Scotland (Daytime) 67.5 King's Cross - Scotland 67.3 Euston - Scotland (Overnight) 55.7 Average 83.7 ----------------------------------------------------------------- REGIONAL RAILWAYS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of trains no more than 5 minutes late - 1991/92 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Target 90 % Best 5 areas West & Central Wales 98.0 Cumbria 96.8 North Wales 95.7 Devon & Cornwall 95.0 Scotrail SouthWest 93.3 Worst 5 areas North East 87.1 ScotRail East 86.8 Anglia 86.3 East & West Midlands 84.5 Midland Express 81.0 Average 89.5 ----------------------------------------------------------------- NETWORK SOUTHEAST ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of trains no more than 5 minutes late - 1991/92 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Target 92 % Best 5 areas Great Northern 95.0 West Anglia 92.8 Solent & Wessex 92.8 South Western Lines 92.2 North London Line 92.0 Worst 5 areas Sussex Coast 89.8 South London Lines 89.8 Northampton Line 89.0 London, Tilbury & Southend 87.9 Kent Coast 85.6 Average 90.8 -----------------------------------------------------------------