Mark Bradley: When lines of communication go off the rails

I WAS recently rung up by a company about a “free calls” offer. At first, it sounded interesting, but then its true purpose (a Trojan Horse for a broadband offer) rapidly emerged. Politely, I declined.

“But this offer expires today” they protested (untruthfully, as the phrase was repeated over the next two days). I then fought hard to get them off the phone. And yet here I am, contemplating the futility of existence, as I wait in a train carriage in silence for someone to talk to me and explain the delay.

The phone company talks to me when I don’t want them to, but conversely, my train operator maintains a frustrating silence, just when I need their help. You’d be forgiven for thinking that neither of these organisations has the customer’s best interests at heart – and that is precisely why rail regulators are proposing new powers to require train companies to keep passengers better informed.

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During the last harsh winter some train companies were criticised for failing to keep passengers updated on delays, cancellations and revised schedules, while Passenger Focus, the rail customer watchdog, says only two in five passengers are satisfied with information provided when trains are delayed.

The rail passenger’s list of frustrations is as long as a day return to Bognor Regis. We’re told – often by rail operators – that more people are now travelling by train, but the way the industry is run doesn’t explain that.

Trains don’t connect (as they did in the post-Beeching and pre-privatisation eras) and tickets don’t cross regional boundaries either. You can travel long haul more cheaply by paying for regional legs individually (if you can understand the ticket purchase options) and that’s before you enjoy fewer (and shorter) trains on some of the UK’s main commuter lines, as well as delays, cancellations and overcrowding. But what angers travellers more than anything else, is the rail companies’ reluctance to keep us informed when there are problems.

Recent signal failures have dogged East Coast with delays of several hours being reported. Ultimately however, passengers’ complaints were not to do with the cause of the problem – even if we do think our trains break down far too often. They’re almost always dominated by the lack of communication. Some train managers do their best to keep passengers updated – even if they do tend to wait until the train is moving before telling you what the problem was. Some mutter their frustration as they rush down the aisle, perhaps confirming my suspicion that they sometimes don’t know what the problem is either.

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But many other train managers only seem to remain in the front or back carriage of the train because it’s presumably more difficult to be detected there.

I think it was Roger Waters, once of Pink Floyd, who wrote that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. I think this wonderful evocation of national character has found its way into rail companies’ collective DNA, since current performance suggests that, when there are delays, they expect us to either guess the reason or resignedly slump back into our seats behind our newspapers.

I have often argued that the abject levels of service we experience in the UK are partly down to our tendency to tolerate it. You may have been served a piece of fish so underdone that it’s still making arrangements for the rest of the evening, but does the typical Briton raise the matter with the waitress as she walks past and enquires “is everything all right?”

As a friend of mine recently discovered, it’s something like that on the railways. Seething at the lack of information while waiting for his train to depart Waterloo Station the other evening, he decided to vent his anger via the exciting new medium of Twitter. This he did with some brio and humour. However, his train wasn’t the only thing stopped in its tracks when he promptly received a tweet from a fellow traveller, advising that there had been a fatality further down the line (and calling him a “muppet” for his trouble, too).

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He shrank back into his seat and chided himself for his heartlessness. But surely this shouldn’t excuse the train operator for not keeping people informed.

East Coast is Britain’s poorest-performing train company and this week launched a new timetable which it said will provide three million extra seats a year. I do give credit to it, however, for continuing the previous franchise’s commitment to encouraging customer feedback.

You can text your comments from your seat and, it is assumed, someone will read your text and take action. Innovations like this tend to underline that train companies do want to give customers a good experience.

However, the responsiveness encouraged and expected from passengers is not mirrored in the way train companies explain delays. In fact, from my experiences, it seems that there are always too many other priorities.

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It’s tempting to blame the current climate on the legacy of successive governments’ rail policies since the late 1970s, but the impression persists of companies obsessed with the economics of the franchise rather than worrying about providing travellers with a solution that meets our needs.

We’re told that the new obligations will come into force in the autumn. If the changes are delayed, I wonder if we’ll ever be told.

Mark Bradley is a consumer campaigner from Bradford.

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