Rail passenger complaints: getting it right

How a train company handles their contact with passengers when things can go wrong can cement their view of the company. This applies to how they handle complaints. Handling complaints well can inspire trust. Most passengers are pragmatic and accept that things will sometimes go wrong with their journey.

But something has noticeably changed over the last year. Our latest annual report for 2016-17 shows how Transport Focus received a record busting 3622 appeal complaints from passengers. A significant increase of 60 per cent on the previous year. So what has been going wrong?

The vast majority of appeal complaints were connected to passengers' original complaints being handled poorly by the train company. At around 2000, appeal complaints for this cause more than doubled from the previous year. We only get to see those cases where the passenger remains dissatisfied and decides to appeal to Transport Focus. So the issues we see are not necessarily representative of the general problems that passengers experience overall. But when some train companies generate disproportionately high numbers of appeal complaints, they do tell us that something is wrong. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) also recorded a 7.5 per cent increase in complaints recording by train operators compared to 2015-16.

We saw the highest appeals from Great Western Railway (GWR) and Virgin Trains West Coast with 601 and 525 appeal complaints respectively. When we see the appeals numbers rising from one train company, we work with them to try to resolve the underlying issue as well as trying to get the best outcome for each and every individual passenger.

With GWR, the problem was partly caused by a change in the supplier of their customer contact centre (across all First group businesses) combined with an incident on the track at Paddington last summer. This all meant that they had an inexperienced team who were unable to process the surge in complaints that came their way quickly. To illustrate the problem, during the previous year we received 12 appeal complaints showing a lack of response or follow up from GWR. By comparison, in 2016-17 there were 654 appeal complaints of this type. For passengers, not only did they have their initial complaint, but, on top of that, they had frustrations in waiting a long time for a response. ORR's data (set out in their Annual Consumer Report 2017) showed that GWR were poor in answering complaints within the obligation of 20 working days. Something wasn't right.

We have been working with GWR to learn the lessons of this episode, including inviting their Managing Director, Mark Hopwood, to a Transport Focus Board meeting to be questioned about the issues. There are a number of lessons from this which other train businesses could heed. The overriding issue here was the change of contract between First and its contact team and coping with an unexpected surge in contacts from passengers. This could apply to other contract changes in the industry such as when a franchise changes. This is particularly true if there are new IT systems, staffing and management structures. They need to recognise that an understanding of the complexity of running a railway is vital. Our consideration of the lessons learnt from this experience are set out in Rail passenger complaint backlogs: lessons for the future (July 2017) https://www.transportfocus.org.uk/research-publications/publications/rail-passenger-complaint-backlogs-lessons-future-great-western-railway-gwr/

While passengers are generally pragmatic, they also want to feel that their poor experience is adequately recompensed. For a train company, this can often be about them making a goodwill gesture to recognise the inconvenience, even if it goes above and beyond the rules.

We have seen that Virgin Trains West Coast have changed their approach to passenger complaints from a more lenient one to a strict adherence of the rules. We believe it is important for compensation to match the problem that the passenger faced. And sometimes, a goodwill gesture is the right thing to do. When we receive an individual compliant, we liaise with the company in order to negotiate a better option for the passenger, if it is merited. The number of complaints appeals referred to us from Virgin West Coast during the six month period January to June this year (371) was more than treble that for the same period last year (115). One example is where a passenger held an Advance Purchase ticket and missed their designated service through no fault of their own and ended up having to pay the full cost of a new ticket.

Virgin's recent approach has been particularly surprising as, in my opinion, they had been leading the industry in good practice and customer service standards. As with GWR, we invited Virgin to talk to our Board about this issue in July. The Managing Director recognised that there was a problem and agreed to recruit and train 25 new staff to improve the service. Also, he will personally review some of the cases we send to him. Will be monitoring progress.

As for the future we will continue to help train companies improve their complaints handling where we see the problems. ORR has indicated they want to understand better why some perform better than others so they can share good practice. And where details of the proposed rail ombudsman scheme are sketchy, this should put pressure on the train companies to improve their complaints handling further.