Train companies who persistently fail to keep passengers updated when rail services are disrupted or delayed could face heavy fines under new proposals laid out by the rail regulator.
The Office for Rail Regulation (ORR) announced yesterday that a new industry code of practice on passenger information will become part of each train company’s operating licence, and said it will “take action” against any operator which repeatedly fails to provide appropriate, accurate and timely updates to passengers.
Rail companies were heavily criticised over the quality of information made available to stranded commuters during last winter’s severe disruption, and have admitted more needs to be done to improve services.
However, they insist millions of pounds are already being spent on passenger information, and claim the ORR should not need to step in and make information part of their licence obligation.
But ORR chief executive Richard Price said: “Rail passengers in Britain today rightly expect to receive reliable information, so that they can plan their journeys and make sensible decisions when services are disrupted.
“This is a fundamental requirement. I welcome the rail industry’s leadership in developing its code of practice... but challenges remain. Only a third of passengers think delays are handled well.”
“The new passenger information obligations we propose will allow the regulator to take action against any organisation consistently failing to meet commitments under the industry’s own code.”
The new code of conduct says staff on trains and at stations must be given messages to pass on to the public within 10 minutes of an incident being notified to a control office. If an incident results in major disruption, then subsequent messages must be updated at least every 20 minutes.
It also says information for passengers must be well structured, concise and jargon-free.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, welcomed the move, saying: “Passengers need accurate, consistent and timely information to help them plan their journeys – particularly when services are disrupted.
“Making passenger information part of a train company’s licence should ensure greater focus on getting information right.”
But train companies have expressed disappointment at the decision, describing it as a further “burden” upon their businesses.
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: “Significant progress has been made in recent years, and the industry is investing millions of pounds to provide better, more consistent information to passengers.
“We know we need to do more. That’s why we’re working with the rest of the industry to improve.
“We are therefore disappointed that despite acknowledging positive improvements to the quality of passenger information during disruption, the ORR is proposing new obligations for the industry.
“We hope the Government... will support an industry-led approach, especially at a time ministers are seeking to reduce the burden of red tape on businesses.”
However, Transport Secretary Justine Greening said the train companies should stop disputing the need for the new obligation, and get on with delivering it.
“The failure to provide information to passengers during last year’s winter’s disruption made a bad situation worse,” she said.
“I want to see the industry working together and taking all reasonable steps to prevent this from happening again. As part of that, I want to see train companies working with the ORR on how the new licence obligation can best be delivered on the ground, rather than dispute its need.”