by Phil Marsh

So, just what do rail passengers complain about?

Published: 25th April 2014

Best and worst train operators revealed by Rail Regulator

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has published the latest analysis of rail passenger complaints made on various aspects of rail services from 2002-03 up until 31 December 2013.

These reports are issued every three months and the latest report considers 1 October to 31 December 2013. A complaint is defined as any expression of dissatisfaction by a customer or potential customer about service delivery or about company or industry policy

The media is always quick to jump on poor service on the railways (it’s almost a national sport!) but the figures clearly show a further decrease in complaints with just 32 made for every 100,000 train journeys made, a decrease of 14.2% on the same period in 2012. The moving annual average (MAA) continues to show a downward trajectory with 30 complaints per 100,000 journeys registered.

As can be imagined, punctuality and reliability drove 34% (51,376) of all complaints and these subjects remain to cause the highest number of complaints across the network.

Social media or phone a friend?

One of the things not forecast 20 years ago with privatisation was that usage of the telephone enquiry service would steadily shrink. This is due to the internet but despite this, more than a million calls were made to the National Rail Enquiries telephone service which was a reduction of 11.2% over the same period in 2012. A total of 4.6 million calls were made in 2012-13 with 94.9% answered and just 5.1% abandoned.

The way complaint information is captured by ORR does not currently use data from social media, a more and more frequent way of complaining. They are looking at ways to include complaints made via social media and are asking for your help on this. ORR is asking for ideas on their Twitter feed at #openrail

What does the latest report feature?

It looks at the overall complaints rate received per 100,000 passenger journeys and splits these into different categories. Individual train companies are assessed and complaints categorised for each one.

The method of how complaints are submitted and how promptly they are answered is also reported on. This is important as some train companies are better at offering an avenue for complaints and so using complaints as an indication of the levels of satisfaction is not yet an exact science.

But as the main cause of complaints is known, the rail industry can use these to identify where improvements should be made. The three months reported on are interesting because they contained some devastating winter weather events which seriously affected every mode of transport.

Whether weather hit services?

There were some extreme weather conditions across the UK rail network in the reporting period with hurricane force storms bringing down trees and other debris onto our rail network.

Lines by rivers and the coast were badly hit and eroded by floods and high tides causing landslides. Trains could not run as Victorian built embankments and cuttings gave way under the meteorological onslaught resulting in service suspensions in late October and in December. The combination of natural events reduced punctuality and reliability which ORR thinks likely to have affected passenger satisfaction.

Overall complaints fall

Comparing the statistics with a year ago, nine train operators saw a reduction in the number of complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys, ranging from 4.8% to 73.3%. But ten train operators saw an increase in complaints.

Two train operators, East Coast and c2c were the only operators where punctuality or reliability did not generate the highest proportion of complaints. Ticketing and refund policy featured heavily with this pair generating 18.3% and 25.3% of complaints respectively.

Snail mail reduction or on-line?

Written complaints fell to 45% of complaints received for all operators except Chiltern reflecting other ways of complaining today while electronic communications’ generated 44% of complaints

In the reporting period, Southeastern, East Midlands, London Overground, Northern and Southern held a “meet the manager” session but Merseyrail was the only train operator to report complaints via online forums.

Chiltern and Southeastern responded to every complaint within 20 working days while at the other end of the spectrum, Virgin Trains propped the table up as they only answered 28.1% of complaints within 20 working days. This is the Industry standard but not all train operators abide by it.

Annual 2012-13 train numbers

Monitoring has been carried out since 2007 and only two train operators have not reduced their complaint rate, London Midland and South West Trains.

The five train companies which had the highest complaints rates in 2012-13 operate all, or part, of their services in the long distance market which are more prone to disruption than a short distance trip. The main two types of passengers are leisure and business travellers rather than commuters who complain more.

Complaints by Virgin Trains’ passengers reduced by 59% compared to their worst year, but they still can’t answer them on time it seems! Their perceived rivals, East Coast Trains, experienced the largest drop in complaints last year reducing from 254 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys to 212 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys.

So who took the award for the most increased complaint rate? It was Arriva Trains Wales whose complaints rate increased by 46.0% coinciding with the lowest PPM punctuality in five years. They did alter their company policy regarding advertising of complaint channels ORR says which may have raised awareness of how to complain.

London Midland recorded the biggest fall in complaints at 73.3% compared to the same period last year but they did have hundreds of train cancellations because of a driver shortage last year and Cross Country complaints fell by 46.5%, First ScotRail 31.2% and First great Western 30.6%.

Praise be!

Of those who complained, 3.5% put in a further complaint about the way their complaint was/was not handled. Praise was received by 3.8% of all passengers.

Ticketing and refunds policy received the second highest proportion of complaints generating 7% of complaints while in/sufficient passenger standing or sitting space drew an increasing proportion of complaints rising from 4.5% in the previous quarter to 5.6%.

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