Rail Ombudsman interview: RTM sits down with CEO Kevin Grix

In November, the first ever Rail Ombudsman was established in a bid to give passengers a free independent service to allow passengers to claim compensation by appealing unresolved complaints. But how will one of the driving forces behind the new service, chief executive Kevin Grix, take his decade of experience— and portfolio of roles in other sectors— into the new position? Jack Donnelly finds out more.

Both passengers and operators in the rail industry are anxious to see how the new ombudsman will improve the railways following a largely chaotic 2018. What are your key priorities going into 2019?

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KG: One of our USPs is that our staff are legally qualified, so the recruitment process is always going to be complex and time consuming and we wanted make sure that we had the right people in place.

But also working with some of the key stakeholders in the sector like the DfT and ORR and, in the consumer landscape, with the likes of ‘Which?’ and Citizens’ Advice Bureau to make sure that everybody was going to be cited on what our powers were going to be from day one so that they could adequately signpost passengers to us.

Why do you think now is the right time for the ombudsman to come into effect? Why haven’t we had one before?

KG: When you stand back and you look at it objectively, it is surprising that there hasn’t been an ombudsman until now; I think setting up an ombudsman scheme isn’t necessarily straightforward though. There was a lot of planning for this particular scheme, and for some of the other ombudsman schemes that had been set up – the Legal Ombudsman, for example – took two years to establish and start running.

Our other organisation, the Furniture Ombudsman, took six years, so from the date that we were procured on the 18 July, we sort of did this overnight. So once the commitment was there from the rail industry to actually do it, it’s all hands to the pump.

What makes the ombudsman different from user watchdog groups, such as Transport Focus, in holding TOCs to account?

KG: The point is that the powers [for current watchdogs] aren’t binding, and they are consumer advocates as well – so our role is slightly different to them, whereas we’ll be looking at cases to arrive at the right outcome. Whether that’s in favour of a passenger or a train operating company, we’re interested in justice being served as opposed to approaching it from an industry point of view or a consumer point of view.

As we began to build and began to grow, the case holders that I began to recruit were legally qualified, and the reason we took that decision is that, with law graduates and non-practicing lawyers, they’re fairly mentally agile. That lends itself to actually picking up the evidence and running with it and making sure we get the right decision on a case by case basis.

What does success look like, Kevin?

KG: One would hope that the presence of an ombudsman, some of the services that we would provide, and some of the data that we will provide, will encourage TOCs to resolve issues with passengers sooner. Ultimately, if our decisions and the data and the work that we do can influence TOCs’ behaviour to resolve issues and actually put passengers in the position they ought to be in, without them having to come to the ombudsman, that would be considered a win.

Where we can influence, we will endeavour to do that, and time will tell. Ultimately, now the great news is that if a passenger does have an unresolved complaint with a train company, there is somewhere they can go now which is free and is binding. We certainly won’t be making any promises over quotas, the amount of cases that we’re finding in favour of a passenger, or the amount of cases we’re finding favour of the industry. What’s really important is that, on a case-by-case basis, we get the right decision, and that is what success looks like for us.

You have a wealth of experience in similar roles as, for example, the Furniture Ombudsman. How will you be able to balance roles day-to-day, and take your experience from those sectors into this role?

KG: I’ve been doing the job now for 10 years, so when you look along the ombudsman landscape, I think I’m the longest serving ombudsman now, and I’m still at a good age at 40 years old, so I will certainly rely on my resilience and my energy going forward.

But I’ll also rely on the reputation that the organisation has built under my stewardship as well. We’re known within the retail sector as having very high moral compass, for being fiercely independent, and for being unforgiving for when it comes to standards. So we will carry that forward into the rail industry, and we will continue to base our service around integrity as well. I’m very confident in the organisation and the people that I’ve got around me, and we’ll make a big success of this for the rail industry and for passengers.

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