In the latest results from our National Rail Passenger Survey published this morning, overall satisfaction with passengers last journeys fell to 79 per cent, its lowest level since 2008.
We asked nearly 27,000 passengers about their latest journey during a ten-week period last Autumn. With worsening punctuality, the timetable chaos last summer, and a series of lamentable strikes, it can be no surprise to the rail industry - or ministers - that one in five passengers (21 per cent) told Transport Focus they were not satisfied. Irritation at delayed and cancelled trains is eroding passengers' most basic trust in the industry, anger during the summer timetable crisis was palpable, and frustration at continual fare increases saps confidence in the system to reform itself.
Governments and passengers are investing huge sums in the railways with more to come in the next few years. This will start to catch up on historic under-investment. New, longer trains are starting to appear across the rail network and many major stations have been massively improved. Timetables have been changed to offer more choices of trains and destinations However, making these improvements happen is proving painful. Until the basic underlying reliability of rail travel gets better then the passenger satisfaction inexorably linked to it will continue to languish.
Comparing overall satisfaction in autumn 2018 with the same measure a year earlier, just two (out of 25) train companies have significantly improved – Heathrow Express and Chiltern Railways. By contrast, seven operators have earned a significantly poorer rating - Great Northern, Northern, TransPennine Express, Greater Anglia, Thameslink, ScotRail and London North Eastern Railway - and a wide gap of 27 percentage points exists between the train companies with the highest and lowest overall satisfaction rating.
When it comes to punctuality, the percentage of journeys rated as satisfactory overall across the country was 71 per cent, down from 74 per cent in Autumn 2017 and substantially lower than the 81 per cent recorded in autumn 2008.
Little wonder that less than half (46 per cent) of passengers rated their journey satisfactory in terms of value for money for the price of their ticket in autumn 2018, a figure unchanged compared to a decade ago in autumn 2008. Among commuters, just 31 per cent of those surveyed shared that sentiment, so nearly seven out of ten were not satisfied, a figure that is also lower than it was in 2008 when it stood at 33 per cent.
Looking at how train operators dealt with delays, satisfaction averaged only 37 per cent this time around, but ranged between 29 per cent (Southern and Thameslink) and 77 per cent (Grand Central).
Long distance operators fare somewhat better: 83 per cent of passenger journeys were rated as very or fairly satisfactory overall in autumn 2018. While this is better than the national average it is still a significant fall from 86 per cent in autumn 2017 (and below the 84 per cent rating earned in autumn 2008). Punctuality/reliability fell markedly on long distance services (down 7 per cent on autumn 2017) though reliability of internet connection rose 5 per cent this year – something we made plain was an easy win for many operators based on what passengers were telling us a year or two ago.
On regional operators overall passenger satisfaction matched the national figure of 79 per cent in autumn 2018 - a significantly lower rating than the 86 per cent recorded ten years before. Punctuality remains the biggest driver of satisfaction on regional services – at its lowest level for 15 years (autumn 2003) - reasons for overall decline show up where the survey asks passengers about the usefulness of information relating to delays (down 13 per cent) or how well train operators dealt with delays (down 11 per cent).
Passengers in some parts of the country are more unhappy than others: In London and the South East, overall satisfaction now sits at 78 per cent, below the national average and significantly down from 80 per cent in autumn 2017, and 82 per cent in autumn 2008.
In Scotland overall passenger satisfaction with ScotRail services also fell in autumn 2018 to 79 per cent, a 15-year low. While recent announcements about extra compensation for disruption are welcome, ScotRail and Network Rail will only win back passenger trust if they keep their basic promises (to deliver more trains, additional capacity, better punctuality and shorter journey times) while also providing better information during any disruption.
In Wales, results gathered during the closing months of the Arriva Trains Wales franchise reflect passengers' severe disappointment with outdated rolling stock. Passenger satisfaction with the upkeep and repair of trains fell to 61 per cent (compared to 69 per cent in autumn 2017) and satisfaction with the cleanliness of train interiors dropped to 68 per cent (from 74 per cent in autumn 2017). Against the backdrop of continued fare rises, these results highlight why the new operator Transport for Wales is rightly focused on efforts to improve rolling stock and other aspects of the passenger experience.
In summary, government and the industry must pay close attention to what passengers are saying and focus in the short term on driving up performance, so that a better value for money and more reliable railway arrives soon for passengers.
In the longer term the Rail Review must drive fundamental change, but on that topic you must wait a few more days until Transport Focus publishes its first submission to the William Rail Review next Monday 4 February.
To read full results of the latest National Rail Passenger survey – completed by 26,766 passengers between 1 September and 16 November 2018 – or to review at-a-glance guides for Great Britain as a whole and individual train companies visit the survey home page.
Anthony Smith is Chief Executive of Transport Focus