Enforcement not needed to improve passenger experience – ORR head
Improving rail passenger experience should be based on engaging with train operating companies (TOCs), not enforcing regulation, the interim chief executive of the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said yesterday.
In a transport select committee hearing on improving passenger experience, Joanna Whittington said that engagement was better than enforcement, adding: “I’m not saying that we wouldn’t seek to enforce, but the important thing is that we do it off a clear evidence base.”
Whittington’s remarks came despite many other witnesses at the hearing strongly criticising the performance of TOCs.
Alex Neill, the director of policy, campaigns and communication at Which?, whose recent super-complaint about passenger compensation required the ORR to publish a report into the issue, said railway companies were “down there with the energy companies and the car dealers” in terms of public trust.
Warnings about lack of industry transparency
Tim Bellenger, director of policy and investigation at London TravelWatch, warned that TOCs currently perceived the ORR and the Department for Transport as a “passenger proxy” and saw franchise agreements and engagement with the regulator as a substitute for meeting passenger needs.
“When I meet with train companies, quite often the response I’ve got is, ‘Well it’s not in our franchise, so we can’t do it,’” he said.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, agreed, saying: “I do worry that a cosy chat between Network Rail and a train company is then accepted as the basis of a passenger’s expectations. Those systems have to be opened up to greater scrutiny.”
He warned that rail passengers currently “do not trust the industry”, citing problems such as the failure of TOCs to supply information every time a train is over two minutes late, as they are required to do, and to provide proper information about changes to services.
Virgin West Coast recently stopped running peak services to Milton Keynes on Thursday and Friday evening without consultation.
The West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority also warned that more cities could be cut from the West Coast Main Line.
Smith said: “It should be made much clearer how those decisions are being made, who the winners are, who the losers are.”
He called for more TOCs to publish right time information, saying it was “a big cultural change which the industry needs to continue to embrace”.
Whittington did point out the ORR had implemented a number of changes, including producing more right time information from TOCs including CrossCountry, and fining Network Rail for breaching its licence, as reported exclusively by RTM last year.
She said the ORR had also helped introduce improvements to TOC websites, including front-page banners announcing disruptions, making compensation information accessible within two clicks, and requiring only 24-hour notice to be needed for passengers to request assistance.
Last week, the ORR published its first report into passenger experience, which found that complaints are decreasing overall, but problems such as difficulties using ticket machines remain an issue.
However, she said that the ORR would not usually take action on delays caused by upgrades, another key issue raised by the witnesses.
She said upgrades required “balancing the interests of passengers today with the interest of future passengers” and said that the ORR “would only take enforcement action if we felt that Network Rail wouldn’t otherwise do the right things”.
Calls for greater route devolution
She said that any changes would be introduced to individual routes on a longer-term basis.
“I think it’s really important to try to find those mechanisms that reinforce the relationship between the network provider and the regulator as a proxy for the customer in the short term,” she said, “and in the longer term, look at some of those things in relation to consumer challenge and stakeholder engagement at a route level.”
Stephen Joseph, director of Campaign for Better Transport, also told the committee he supported greater route devolution, following the recommendations of the Shaw report.
“Local devolved bodies can exercise more intelligent control over infrastructure works and plan better,” he said.
He said Transport for London, which is better able to plan for the needs of individual groups of its customers, such as part-time workers, was a good model. He also called for a concessions model to help incentivise TOCs.
Neil Middleton, chair of the Association of Public Transport Users, called for a “commuter pay-as-you-go” smart card system on commuter lines.
Chris Fribbins, head of the passenger group at Railfuture, said existing moves to make rolling stock more disability accessible needed to be matched with funding to upgrade priority stations.
He warned disabled passengers currently risked being “faced with a situation where they pull into a station and can’t get off”.
(Image c. AdamKR)
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