A report for the Consumers’ Association (CA) magazine Which? Confirms that what rail passengers in Britain most want is basic improvements to their trains: more carriages to ensure everyone can get a seat, more reliable and punctual trains, and toilets that are working, clean and available. In addition, although they want improvements to stations, and especially toilets and staff on more stations, most put a much higher priority on improvements to trains.
Three-quarters of passengers think train services have neither better nor worse in the last 12 months. Nearly two-thirds of passengers think train tickets are too expensive. In addition, many want improvements to how train tickets are marketed and sold.
The results are based on questioning nearly 7,000 rail passengers in November 2015. This sounds a large sample, but they are divided between 22 different train-operating companies (TOCs). For 11 TOCs, fewer than 200 passengers were questioned, and for three of those fewer than 80 were questioned. The CA’s data for these TOCs may therefore be less accurate than those for which they questioned larger numbers of passengers.
The CA is not the only organisation that surveys the views of rail passengers. Transport Focus (formerly Passenger Focus) also conducts regular surveys, and it questions many more passengers, which makes its results more accurate. However, there are differences between the questions that the TF and CA surveys ask, and therefore differences in the results that they provide. The two types of survey should therefore be regarded as complementary to each other, rather than competing or contradictory.
Train companies that serve the Thames Valley counties
The CA gave each TOC a “customer score” for overall satisfaction. Of the TOCs that serve the Thames Valley counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, it gave: Chiltern Railways 60%, Cross Country Trains 55%, South West Trains 51% & Great Western Railway (GWR) 50%. Amongst TOCs, nationally it ranked Chiltern seventh, Cross Country 11th, SW Trains 15th and Great Western 17th.
Passengers were asked to give a rating out of five for each aspect of service. Every TOC got a rating of at least two for each aspect. GWR was rated lowest, scoring only two out of five for its toilets and on value for money.
Chiltern scored four out of five for most aspects of its service, including punctuality, reliability, frequency, and having enough seats on trains. Cross Country scored three out of five for most aspects of its service, but got fours for its punctuality and reliability. SWT also scored four for reliability.
However, whereas the CA questioned 949 passengers for SWT and 434 passengers for GWR it polled only 192 for Cross Country and only 117 for Chiltern. Therefore, scores for SWT and GWR may be more accurate than those for Cross Country and Chiltern.
Passengers want more carriages
Rail passenger numbers have increased every year for the last two decades. The number of trains and carriages has been increased too slowly to keep up. It is therefore no surprise that 46% of passengers said they want more carriages. If fares are increased, 76% want it spent on either more seats (28%) or more carriages (24%).
Overall, 37% want trains to have clean and working toilets and 34% want free Wi-Fi on trains. This varies by age: the younger passengers are, the more they want Wi-Fi; the older they are, and the more they want a toilet!
The CA seems not to have asked passengers about the quality of Wi-Fi. Where it is provided on trains or stations, users have switched to commenting on whether it is reliable enough or fast enough.
Overall, only 11% want better catering facilities on trains, however, this is a national percentage; the CA fails to provide a breakdown according to the type of train service or length of journey. It would be more helpful if it said what percentage of passengers on longer-distance or express services wanted better on-train catering.
Every High-Speed Train that British Rail built has a buffet car. GWR has been widely criticised for telling Hitachi not to include a buffet car on any of the new expresses that it is building to replace them when the GW Main Line is electrified. The new trains will have only a trolley service, which is why Steve Blair of Didcot is leading the popular “Save the Buffet” campaign.
Few passengers care what age their train is, so long as it is reliable and provides what they want. Only 15% said they wanted newer trains. GWR’s diesel High-Speed Trains are four decades old. As long as they are reliable and on time, no passenger criticises them for their age. Passengers criticise a train’s age only if the train is also a poor quality, unreliable or unpleasant, such as the notorious 1980s Pacers that still run in parts of northern England, the south-west and south Wales.
Station need toilets
Passengers’ most common criticism of stations is toilets. 53% asked for clean and working WCs on stations, and amongst passengers over 45, the figure was 60%. Many smaller stations have no WC. Some have toilets that are locked shut except when the station is staffed, which may be for only a few hours each weekday morning.
32% want free Wi-Fi on stations, and among passengers under 35 the figure is 44%. Nevertheless, staffing is an equally big concern. 33% of passengers want stations to be staffed during the hours that trains are running. This reflects how many stations are either unstaffed or staffed only for limited hours each day, such as weekday early mornings.
26% want better shelters on stations and among women passengers the figure is 30%. However, the CA fails to analyse this figure in any detail. Is the percentage higher among passengers whose usual station has either no shelter or only a bus-type shelter?
However, if fares are increased, only 7% of passengers want the extra income spent on improving stations. This is less than a tenth of the number who want it spent on more train capacity (76%) and half the number who would like it spent on running trains more frequently (15%).
Fares should be cheaper and simpler
Most passengers think rail fares are too high. Despite Chiltern’s high satisfaction ratings, 70% of its passengers want fares reduced. This is the highest percentage on any TOC in Britain. This compares with 65% on SWT and Cross Country (equal third highest in Britain) and 63% on GWR (equal seventh highest).
A large minority of passengers criticised the complexity of tickets. At least 30% wanted more clarity on the choice of fares. 22% wanted TOC has to tell passengers that they can ask for “split tickets”, which means buying separate tickets for different segments of the same journey. This is because Britain’s rail ticketing is so complex and inconsistent that in many cases it is cheaper to buy two or more split tickets than one ticket for the whole journey.
At present, rail staffs are not allowed to suggest split tickets, but if a passenger asks for them, they must sell them. It is not clear how many rail passengers know about split tickets and the money they can save by buying them. Were the knowledge more widespread, the percentage wanting TOCs to offer split tickets might be higher than the 22% in the survey.
31% of passengers said they want promotional offers on tickets and 18% wanted the option of joining a loyalty scheme. Loyalty schemes were a more popular idea among commuters (23%). However, these responses were in the context of overall dissatisfaction with high fares. If fares were cheaper and simpler overall, the demand for special offers and loyalty schemes might be less.
Passengers are changing the ways they buy tickets
After British Rail reduced station facilities in the 1970s, many passengers complained that their station no longer had a ticket office. Now, however, only 12% want more stations to have ticket offices. On those stations that have ticket offices, only 19% want them to be open for more hours.
20% want to be able to print their tickets at home, reflecting the popularity of buying tickets online. 16% want to have their ticket on their smartphone, which obviates the need to print a ticket at all. As more people make more use of their smartphones, it seems likely that this option may become more popularity and the printing tickets at home may become a passing phase.
What passengers want most is what they have been demanding, and consistently denied, for decades. Most of all they want trains with enough carriages to give everyone a seat, and more reliability and punctuality. They are far less concerned about stations, but they want more stations to have toilets, and users of unstaffed stations want staff to be reintroduced.
These old demands have been joined by new ones including passengers increasingly expect good, free Wi-Fi not as a luxury, but something as basic as a good mobile ’phone signal.
Buying rail tickets online displaying them on smartphones is becoming more popular, and use of station booking offices may be declining. However, TOCs would be unwise to close booking offices as Transport for London has done, as the survey shows many passengers want to be able to ask questions about ticket options and get answers from a real person!
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