John Swift QC, the rail regulator, decided to act after receiving the latest figures from privatised rail industry, which showed that 49 per cent of calls went unanswered in April and 35 per cent were not taken in May. The rules state that 90 per cent of all calls should be answered. The companies should be "in no doubt as to the consequences" if the required standards were not met," said Mr Swift.
The regulator's warning came after his office issued an order seeking weekly information on performance of the telephone service. The train operators, who run the national telephone service, have until the second week in July to convince the rail regulator that they have improved the service.
Aides point out that the industry did not supply the relevant information early enough. "The regulator is furious - he could have acted a month ago but the companies did not churn out the numbers," said one official.
Given the chance, the watchdog will bite. One source close to the regulator said the total penalty may run to "millions of pounds ... there are 25 train companies. If the national telephone system does not meet the required standards, we will fine each one of them."
Officially known as the National Rail Enquiry Service, the service is administered by the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc).
In April last year, the system had 80 different numbers. These were replaced by a single number in October 1996 and the whole system franchised to the private sector. This has seen callers from London answered by operators in South Wales, many of whom are unaware of the local destinations.
Since autumn last year, performance had been steadily climbing towards this target. But figures supplied to Mr Swift showed "a severe fall in performance since April 1997".
A spokesman for Atoc claimed the system was handling a record number of calls. He pointed out that last week more than 910,000 calls were answered.
"Of course we are sorry that our suppliers - which include BT and a number of train companies - have let us and the public down. But we are confident of improving the service," said the spokesman.Reuse content