Rail inquiry service could answer only five out of 20 questions

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The Independent Online

Advice from Britain's rail enquiry service is often inaccurate, Which? magazine reports today.Only five answers of 20 questions posed by researchers were correct, with one operator having no idea where Cambridge is and another suggesting the caller buy a ticket which would have left him £130 poorer.

Advice from Britain's rail enquiry service is often inaccurate, Which? magazine reports today.Only five answers of 20 questions posed by researchers were correct, with one operator having no idea where Cambridge is and another suggesting the caller buy a ticket which would have left him £130 poorer.

In one call summed up as "12 minutes to get virtually nowhere", a researcher asked the National Rail Enquiry Service (NRES) how close Cheltenham station was to the centre of the town. "After offering the names of the 'next few stations close to that', and asking our researcher what county it was in, he tapped away on his computer for some time trying to locate an elusive Cheltenham; then he gave up."

The City of Cambridge was a headache. "The operator had no idea where Cambridge was and much of the time was almost silent, muttering 'Cambridge, Cambridge', and bizarrely, occasionally 'Birmingham', until our researcher put him out of his misery." Ignorance about less expensive tickets was also a problem. One operator quoted £182 for a late-morning fare from Manchester to London; the price is £52.

In August last year, NRES staff got eight out of 20 questions right. There was a slight improvement on the "appalling" result in May 2002 when only three out of 20 answers were correct. Some 15 per cent of calls to the service are handled in India; by next June, 50 per cent will be dealt with there.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), which is responsible for the NRES, said it took criticism seriously because it had pride in its "quality and accuracy".

A spokesman said the study was based on only 20 calls, which did not give a true picture. But management was investigating. The spokesman said: "The NRES is independently measured by the world's leading mystery shopping company, which makes 8,000 test calls per year, and we consistently score extremely highly."

The spokesman said the service handled 50 million calls year, making it Britain's busiest telephone number.

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