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Railwatch 073 - October 1997

Credibility on the line

A vast number of potential rail passengers have been prevented from travelling by train because they were unable to get proper information about services.

After months of problems with the 0345 484950 national enquiry line, the Rail Regulator intervened in August to warn operators that they would be fined if the service did not improve. The failings of the enquiry line have been an enormous problem especially when even seasoned rail travellers are baffled by the plethora of new companies and agencies which have entered the rail industry.

Many of the new companies appear to have done little other than re-paint trains with new liveries and sack experienced staff. Yet some have been quick to claim they are doing better than BR and are resentful of criticism.

Railtrack chairman Sir Robert Horton confidently told his shareholders in July that the "revitalised railway industry is now working to deliver a railway fit for the 21st century". At the annual general meeting, he boasted of profits of £339 million and said: "This year's results show the first fruits of a new company at the heart of a revitalised industry that is determined to deliver better performance, greater efficiency and improved service to all rail users."

Yet in April, 49% of calls to the inquiry line were not even answered. In May it was 35% of callers who were disappointed, and in June, 45%.

Train operators and their association (ATOC) are responsible for providing the train inquiry service. Rail Regulator John Swift has given operators a month to make sure that 90% of calls are answered. He said: "Operators have had every chance." He said there would be a £200,000 fine if the national rail enquiry service fails to answer more than 75% of calls. The fines would be reduced if higher targets were achieved and there would be no fines if 90% of calls are answered.

By early August, the enquiry line was answering about 82% of calls. Mr Swift said the performance of the line would be monitored from 17 August to 14 September.

One of the big problems, however, is that the quality of information being provided is declining as experienced staff are forced out of their jobs. "The enquiry service has virtually collapsed in may parts of the country because the private rail companies tried to run it on the cheap, dismissing experienced staff and bringing in cheap, part-time inexperienced workers," said Keith Bill of Save Our Railways. Some of the enquiry line staff had difficulty differentiating between Liverpool Street and Liverpool.

ATOC announced that it was confident the service could hit its target. Yet there have been disturbing reports that ATOC is a forum for quarrelling rather than co-operation. It was ATOC which has brought in restrictions on the use of Network Cards which are now held by 445,000 people.

Network Cards have been a crucial factor in attracting people to rail but when passenger numbers start to increase ATOC reacted by introducing restrictions on people using the Network Card. ATOC has increased the price of the card from £14 to £20 but after protests, has backed down on attempts to prevent people using it out of London between 1600 and 1930.

RDS general secretary Trevor Garrod had appealed to ATOC to think again about the Network Cards. And an RDS delegation to Transport Minister Glenda Jackson urged that the planned changes be reversed and other cards introduced to encourage more people to use rail. Several train operating companies have failed to respond when demand increases and do not seem poised to cater for motorists switching to rail.

A single-car 153 unit was operating to the seaside resort of Felixstowe when thousands of people were heading to the coast during the August heatwave.

Buses replace trains when holidaymakers try to reach the Welsh coast from the Midlands, and the North Wales coast line can be agony because of overcrowding during the summer months.

Thousands of people take their cycles with them on holiday but most are strapped on the backs of cars while rail operators have invented pages of red tape to prevent them going by rail. There seems to be an unwillingness or inability on the part of the rail operators to react to increased demand.

The structure of track access charges and leasing charges seems to deter rail operators from providing extra coaches or trains and there is no cheap reserve of rolling stock which can be operated at marginal cost to meet peaks of demand.

With pollution from road traffic regularly now causing health problems, the rail companies' failings are becoming a matter of life and death.

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