Rail complaints system ‘broken’ lack of ‘basic courtesy’ to customers

Rail complaints system is ‘broken’ with companies blocking complainers on Twitter and not showing ‘basic courtesy’, report claims

  • Fewer than one in five satisfied with outcome or handling of complaints
  • One customer reported being blocked on Twitter so she could not complain
  • Passengers say complaints are ignored and mishandled by operators
  • Between April 2017 and March 2018 more than half a million complaints lodged 

Passengers who complain about failing train companies are not even treated with ‘basic courtesy’, a scathing report has found.

An investigation by consumer group Which? concluded that Britain’s rail complaints system is ‘broken’ after discovering that fewer than half of rail passengers were satisfied with how their dispute was dealt with.

Fewer than one in five passengers with three major operators – Northern, Govia Thameslink Railway and Great Western – said they were satisfied with the outcome or handling, or both, of their complaint.

But rail companies also stand accused of treating passengers with utter contempt.

Govia Thameslink – who run Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express – were among a select few accused of being particularly rude


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Less than half (46 per cent) of respondents said they were satisfied that Northern has even been polite in dealing with their complaint.

In one case, a long suffering commuter on Northern reported she had been blocked on Twitter after complaining when her trains were regularly cancelled, severely delayed or too full to get on.

Around half of passengers with several other rail operators said staff failed to show them basic courtesy when they complained about poor service.

Firms accused of being particularly rude include South Western Railway, Great Western Railway, Govia Thameslink Railway, TransPennine Express, Heathrow Express and the now defunct Virgin Trains East Coast franchise.

The damning report examined official data published by the Office of Rail and Road between April 2017 and March this year – during which time more than half a million complaints about rail services were lodged.

Complaints have surged again over the summer following the shambolic introduction of a new rail timetable which caused thousands of delays and cancellations.

Delays dealing with complaints was a major source of frustration for passengers, according to the report.

Just 15 per cent of Northern passengers were satisfied with the time taken to deal with their grievance.

The other main offenders on this front were Great Western (19 per cent), South Western (22 per cent). Arriva Trains Wales (23 per cent) and Virgin Trains East Coast, which was renationalised in June and renamed LNER.

Northern was the last or in the bottom three of the 18 train companies in every aspect of the complaints process that passengers were asked about.

This ranged from politeness of staff, to whether the complaint was taken seriously, how easy it was to make a complaint, clarity of the information provided, and whether passengers were satisfied with the outcome.

With trust in the rail industry already ‘chronically low’, Which? said these ‘huge failings in the complaints process are not helping the situation’.

Customers are aggrieved at the length of time it takes to deal with their complaints – just 22 per cent of South Western’s passengers said they were satisfied with the time it took to deal with their complaint 

Alex Hayman, the consumer group’s managing director of public markets, said:

‘Clearly there are serious underlying problems in the current rail complaints system, which need to be addressed. Train companies have to step up and start delivering good customer service when things go wrong – informing passengers about their rights and dealing properly with any complaints that arise.’

The government has promised to set up a new independent rail ombudsman, amid criticism that complaints are handled poorly and it is too difficult for passengers to get compensation.

Frustration among rail commuters boiled over during the summer following the botched introduction of a new rail schedule in May.

This caused mayhem for commuters on Northern rail in the North of England, and on Thameslink and Great Northern in Southern England.

According to the Office of Rail and Road, complaints jumped to a six year high for the first quarter of the financial year – between April and July.

The backlash was driven by anger over punctuality, shoddy facilities on board and overcrowded trains.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail operators and Network Rail, said:

‘We’re committed to improving the service for our customers and to upholding the highest standards in our complaints process. That’s why the rail industry has led the way on creating an independent Rail Ombudsman with powers to make legally binding rulings.’

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