The Autumn 2013 National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) from Passenger Focus brought cheering news for train operators across the UK: all of them scored a satisfaction rating of over 75%, with only Southern, Northern Rail and First Capital Connect scoring less than 80%. We rail travellers were clearly a happy bunch. And then came the latest rail passenger survey from Which?
Virgin Trains - doing moderately well
“Rail Satisfaction Levels Drop Below 50%” announced Sky News (“first for breaking wind”), as it became clear that we rail travellers weren’t so happy after all. The Sky report had homed in on the ten operators who were short of a 50% score (as opposed to the nine who bettered it). The problem? “delays, high ticket prices and not enough seats are behind a slump in satisfaction with UK rail companies”.
Well, there’s a surprise. It would not have helped those train operators that the Which? survey had been taken at a time when the rail network was suffering the effects of the recent spate of bad weather, and that, as the Guardian has pointed out, “Respondents were polled in early January, soon after the latest price rises”. Rail travel is becoming ever more expensive.
Southern - doing moderately badly
So who was top of the pile? To no surprise at all, two of the top three performers – Merseyrail and c2c – operate on tracks largely segregated from the rest of the rail network. This means fewer delays. A more or less homogenous fleet means better reliability. Frequent services mean less hanging around. And Merseyrail is not the most expensive for ticket prices.
Best long distance operator was Virgin Trains, 5% ahead of publicly owned East Coast. The difference? No, not private sector enterprise, but a newer fleet and less bad overcrowding (travelled East Coast at busy times? Don’t even ask about it). But new fleets do not mean satisfaction: South West Trains, mostly using Herr Siemens’ finest rolling stock, was down in the mid-40s.
Roll of shame (from the Guardian)
And at the very bottom of the heap were First Capital Connect on 41%, with Greater Anglia and Southeastern on a miserable 40%. That is just dire, especially when you consider Greater Anglia contains part of what used to be BR InterCity, and Southeastern the domestic high speed services on HS1. So why such bleak news? After all, there are price rises every year now.
Simples. Train operators have very little leeway in how they run their franchises. Government specifies what they can and cannot do, and after all, that is where the subsidy most of them get is coming from. Trains that have not been refurbished for several years are harder to keep clean. More demand but no more seats means more overcrowding. So jacking up the cost just makes it worse.
Yes, it could be cheaper. But would we all vote for more subsidy? Maybe not.