ANOTHER VIEW; A railway attractive and accessible to all

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The Independent Online
The January Which? report has received a lot of publicity. As the independent Rail Regulator, I am naturally concerned with its results. Let me explain how I have been seekingto improve the accuracy of information supplied to passengers, which is a necessary basis for the operation of an efficient railway in which passengers are entitled to the exercise of choice between competing operators and services.

The new railway structure marks a radical change from the old monopoly. In the new railway, passenger train companies have the opportunity to market their services independently of each other. Passengers should have much more choice about how to arrive at their destinations and about fares. That is the result of the introduction of competition. But operators must also work in co-operation with each other. That is to secure the maintenance of network benefits. And passenger expectations are higher, and rightly so. In July 1995, I approved new rules, as part of the new structure, that require every passenger train operator to provide impartial information about the fares and timetables offered by all train operators. In effect, it was turning every staffed ticket office into an "independent" travel agent.

Giving passengers more choice means that operators will have toexplain the options clearly and impartially; passengers will also have to be clear about what matters most to them: is the cheapest fare, possibly involving a longer journey and several changes, more important than speed and frequency? Establishing what really meets passengers' needs best is critical.

I could not demand the introduction of a new national train information service to replace the existing system overnight. I had to work with what we had. And I gave the operators until 22 October before the rules on impartial selling came into force. This gave operators a chance to train their staff - a programme that was not completed when the Which? survey was carried out. I monitored it in November. I received the findings just before Christmas. On the "lowest fares" question, one out of five answers was wrong. That tells me further improvements must be carried out throughout the network. Moreover, I have required all operators to reach new standards of performance in the case of telephone inquiry bureaux. These are all part of the new structure to produce an improved railway - both opportunities and controls. If the rules are broken, if operators are not doing what their competitors require them to do, I shall not hesitate in enforcing the terms of the relevant licence. But that is a last resort. My expectation is that mutual interest in the supply of accurate information to passengers, using up-to-date technology, will make the railway more accessible and attractive to all.

The writer is the Rail Regulator.

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