by Phil Marsh

Passenger Focus survey creates passengers’ manifesto for improvements

Published: 13th October 2014

Populus survey coincides with the start of the new Southeastern franchise

It is the season of passenger surveys!

Official but independent rail watchdog, Passenger Focus has released details of their survey to establish rail passengers’ priorities. This Rail passengers’ priorities for improvements research attracted 3500 passengers’ comments covering many UK stations in March and April 2014. Passengers said that better value for money tickets was their number one priority for improvement.

Other top scoring subjects on the list as could be forecast, were getting a seat, more frequent and punctual trains and when the service went wrong, better information.

They said: David Sidebottom, Passenger Focus’s director, said: “This research should be key reading for the rail industry and governments. It provides a wealth of data which points to passengers’ improvement priorities for years to come. It is a manifesto for rail passengers.

“Value for money is passengers’ number one priority. This is closely linked to the core provision of a good train service – more trains that run on time and delays that are dealt with effectively when they happen. The rail industry needs to continue focusing its efforts on delivering these core improvements that passengers really want whether in franchise renewals or investment programmes.

This is the first large survey that features free Wi-Fi on trains to be listed in the top ten of passengers’ priorities for improvement. This makes it interesting so far as the new Scotrail franchise trains announced just last week will not be fitted with Wi-fi according to official statements.

The key findings of the survey are;

The top five priorities were broadly the same in England, Scotland and Wales. Seating, toilets, bins, platform shelters and waiting rooms were the things that passengers wanted improved most at stations.

The top ten priorities for improvement across Great Britain were:

Price of train tickets offers better value for money

Passengers always able to get a seat on the train

Trains sufficiently frequent at the times I wish to travel

More trains arrive on time than happens now

Train company keeps passengers informed about delays

Less frequent major unplanned disruptions to your journey

Fewer trains cancelled than happens now

Accurate and timely information available at stations

Journey time is reduced

10. Free Wi-Fi available on the train

Populus survey coincides with the start of the new Southeastern franchise

Populus carried out a survey interviewing a 1,000 passengers face-to-face at over 20 stations across Kent, Sussex and London to coincide with the start of the Southeastern franchise extension.

Taking one example, the Hastings line results showed that under a third of passengers agree that travelling by Southeastern is good value for money and only 27% of commuters and 22% of season ticket holders though that their journey was value for money.

The headline finding by 64% was that the price of tickets is the greatest area of improvement needed for Southeastern over the next 4 years. This is under the control of the Government as it controls the Department for Transport (DfT) which has set Regulated fares which include season tickets. Fare levels and annual increases in reality have been set by politicians since 1948 when the rail network was nationalized. Today though, train companies can offer cheap fares in addition to Regulated fares.

You buy a ticket but who gets the cash?

These are often only offered on their own services due to the way ticket revenue is allocated between train companies. For example. Between Brighton, Gatwick and London there are Thameslink, Gatwick Express and Southern services running and all fares are split between them except where a bargain fare valid only on a specified operator is offered.

Engineering work

Many are confusing the Southeastern new franchise as just that when in reality it is a four year management contract with all ticket revenues going to the DfT. So again, they will be setting the fare levels but during the franchise period, Southern and Gatwick Express and Thameslink will all become one train company.

Despite the gripes, 70% of interviewees were satisfied overall when using Southeastern with around a 60% satisfaction rating for commuters and season ticket holders. This does pose a problem though as if pricing scores so low then why is overall satisfaction rated so high because statistically, the poor score should drag down the overall figure unless it has been weighted.

The Populus survey also suggested that 62% of interviewees agreed that there should be more competition among Train Operating Companies when bidding to run routes. The DfT has published guidelines for prospective bidders for franchises but the safety and financial issues require a huge skillset and are limited to existing rail operators.

Competition or cartel?

There is also limited scope for train Versus train competition on the same route due to the way franchises have been let. They are let against a set timetable pattern which Network Rail has to accommodate safely and punctually. In essence, you now have two Government departments negotiating with each other over train service patterns – a cartel?

It is also difficult to have competing fare levels as the finance is agreed in franchise agreements leaving little real scope for competition.

And in four year’s time?

Currently under half of passengers interviewed would want to see Southeastern continue to run the line and this was recognized when the Rail Minister wrote a letter to commuters when she announced the four year extension explaining why the decision had been made and promising improvements.

Communications with passengers remains an issue as does trust in South Eastern with about half of all passengers trusting the rail company. But, ALL train operators, as with ALL businesses are in business to make money but as Tesco for example has just found out, trust and a good reputation is hard to earn but easy to lose.

Your chance to decide

The election is next May and as the train service and fares levels are set by the Government, and Network Rail is now a Government department, you could argue that if unhappy passengers and commuters want change – consider how you vote - but as others might say, you get what you vote for!

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