/ Travel & Leisure

Update: is it time for a rail ombudsman?

Complaints about rail services have risen once again, according to latest data from the rail regulator. Punctuality and reliability of services were the most common complaint made by passengers. So how can we get trains on track?

The Office of Rail and Road has revealed that the number of complaints being made by passengers on our railways rose by 7.5% in the year 2016-17, with over half a million complaints in total.

In truth, this doesn’t come as a surprise to many of us here at Which?, especially after thousands of supporters of our rail campaign shared with us their experiences of using trains in the UK. Their stories highlighted the multiple basic failings that passengers are having to put up with every day…

Train complaints

Figures for 2016/17 show that 26.5% of all complaints received were about punctuality and reliability. In fact, the regulator reports that punctuality and reliability on trains in the past year have been at its worst since 2005/6.

Reliability of rail services was certainly a common gripe for among our campaign supporters too. One supporter, Saul, told us:

‘I was waiting on the platform with the information sign saying ‘on time’, then a minute after the train was due it updated to say the train would arrive in a minute’s time. It updated every minute in this way for a further 10 minutes before switching to saying delayed. Five minutes later the train disappeared from the board and the next train showed as delayed. Five minutes later that was also cancelled, as was the train after that. All of this with no useful or informative announcements or warnings. I was tempted to start walking the 45 miles home, or see if I could get back into the office to sleep the night.’

The second highest complaint recorded by the regulator was about ticket buying facilities, with 7.3% of complaints. An issue that again was reflected in our supporter stories, and particularly bad for Which? supporter Adrian:

‘Ticket inspectors tried to fine me for not having a ticket even when the ticket office was closed and only touch screen machines were available. I’m blind and cannot use them. I have had to call the police on several occasions due to their threatening behaviour. Complaints are ignored and the standard response provided is that I should have asked total strangers to put in my card pin and help me use the machines.’

Future of rail

With well over half a million complaints in the past year, and with the total number of complaints going up, passengers have reached the end of the line with shoddy train companies. If you’ve experienced a poor rail service then you can use our free tool to claim a refund.

Passengers need to be put first. That’s why, with the new government in place, we’re calling for reform of the regulator to ensure that it’s better equipped put passengers at the heart of everything it does, and focus more closely on ensuring train companies are delivering for passengers.

We also want to see the creation of a mandatory and statutory rail ombudsman for rail to help passengers get their complaints resolved and put right things when they go wrong.

Update: 4 August 2017

Win! Plans for a new independent ombudsman for rail complaints have been announced.

The ombudsman will offer frustrated rail passengers a free-to-use complaints service that’s expected to start from early next year. It will be tasked with investigating customer complaints where train companies haven’t taken action or if failings are uncovered.

We know that thousands of rail passengers feel let down and ignored by train providers when things go wrong. Yet, while this is welcome news and a win for over 95,000 of our rail campaign supporters, sadly train companies will sign-up to the ombudsman on a voluntary basis rather than statutory.

We’re calling on the government to introduce an ombudsman that all operators must join. Only then will they be able to begin to restore trust and ensure that passengers get a much better standard of service.

If you want to see better rail services and an ombudsman that all train companies must sign-up to then back our campaign today.

What would you do to improve rail? Should the regulator be more passenger focused? Is a rail ombudsman needed?


The franchising system is flawed, failing to give effective accountability – going via the Department of Transport is far too remote, indirect and ponderous.
I suggest where effective competition is feasible ( intercity / long distance ) , accountability should come through ongoing open access competition. As far as captive market natural monopoly ( typically commuter and short distance ) operations are concerned, give these over to local cooperatives with directly elected “supremos” ( similar to the existing police and crime commissioner roles).

There is a typographical error in the first paragraph under the “Future of rail” sub-heading. It refers to a “feel tool” for claiming a refund. This is not a complaint, of course, just recognition that no organisation is perfect in service delivery.

Hi John, thank you for spotting that error. I’ve corrected the error now. It’s annoying when these things slip through the net, we’ll double our efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen. Thanks

With the railways, one delay or problem can give rise to many complaints, but it is really just one complaint expressed by multiple passengers!

I question the need for a separate rail regulator given that the Department for Transport controls or is responsible for virtually every aspect of operations and services, but I do support the case for an Ombudsman to represent the passengers and provide redress for failings. The DfT is unlikely to agree, of course, because in many instances the complaints would lead back to their decisions.

Many of the problems are due to the high demand for rail services and the packing of the timetable in an attempt to meet that demand. No system will be successful if demand is unrestrained and I wouldn’t want the outcome of this to be a reduction in services to give more capacity for service recovery or a compulsory reservation system which technology now enables. Of course, once there was an Ombudsman in place the number of complaints would shoot up so it would be a major and costly establishment. The question is, whether it would lead to much improvement or just push fares up.

It also brings home the short-termism of many government decisions. The blinkered and inept perception that led to the wholesale destruction of most of the Railway system in the ’60s under Beeching and Marples has, essentially, led to the current situation. Government and Politics do not make good bedfellows.

We need to have a Nationalised Transport system once again, most European countries have . The fare structure would be simplified again without profit. Those against should know that British Rail were always underfunded by the Government, today, the subsidies given to the private companies and shareholders is enormous. We all know from the NHS situation that this Government does not support Nationalised Industries. That does not apply to the Southern Central line (privately operated) where the losses incurred are being paid by the Government, Yes US.

The passenger train operations are running at a surplus overall, Norman, and are not requiring nett subsidies. That is in stark contrast to the final years of British Rail which were heavily subsidised. The number of passengers carried since privatisation has doubled, the number of services and their frequency have increased enormously, and the trains are much newer and more reliable. Nearly all the parts of the railway industry that are not working well [like Network Rail, and the delivery of new projects] are under government control. As you say, the Southern Rail system is being run on a government contract, not as a franchise, and it is turning out to be a financial and performance disaster; you want the whole network to be operated in that fashion?

Yes, although BR’s operational losses were a drain on the exchequer, there was indeed a problem with having to go to the government for investment capital, who never supplied enough for all that was needed.
One of the main reasons for privatising was to free the railway to be able to borrow investment funds on the capital market – hence all the Pendolino’s, class 66 freight locos, etc.

As a young man, I moved down to London & then met someone, got married & did the usual things. I used the trains a lot into Central London, being a regular commuter, for almost 35 years. I moved back to the North West having retired & use my local trains in & around Manchester 3-4 times per month. I’ve been back 4+ years. In all my time commuting into London, I never once had to use a replacement bus service. Since I’ve been back I’ve lost count of the number of times my line has been subject to one & it hasn’t been provided with a decent level of service either. The trains are filthy (some routes & rolling stock are abysmal). Fares are cheaper but the new franchise holder in my area has increased fares 3 times in the 14 months they’ve been in charge – & I’m paying through my taxes for this! Why do I have to subsidise inefficient companies & pay toward shareholder dividends? This is just a snapshot of issues but I could fill a couple of pages!

Harry’s experiences , I think, stem from a franchisng system with hardly any effective mechanisms for accountability. I guess his commuter service into Manchester is a captive market monopoly , where the operator can give bad service with impunity. If competition isn’t feasible ( on most short commuter services it isn’t ), there needs to be some other way to give real power to consumers, such as directly elected local transport ” supremo’s ” with the power to give local franchises or concessions or to appoint management boards.

You have my sympathy, Harry – there is nothing worse than a rail replacement bus service. It does happen in London quite a lot but usually at the weekends, especially on our line from Norwich which has been disrupted every weekend for ages. The alternative service is usually well organised but it is still a pain usually involving a coach to an Underground station somewhere in outer London and then a tube train ride into central London. The usual facilities of a main line train are absent.

In most cases a replacement bus service is provided when the lines are closed for engineering work, which is the responsibility of Network Rail rather than the train operating company. Inevitably, the coaches go on a circuitous route in order to serve the stations and I was on one recently where the driver didn’t know the way [I should explain, that was an emergency bus service rather than a planned one, and due to a passenger incident rather than engineering work].

There is no reason – other than bad politics – why regions should not have much greater control over the railway franchising system; Liverpool does it and other city regions should be allowed to do so too.

can we have an ombudsman with real powers??? i,e able to legislate against the companies as well as the unions which would have legal power to stop any missuse of our public transport services?????

An update for you all, today plans for a new independent ombudsman to deal with rail complaints has been announced. This is something that we’ve been calling for so this is welcome news, but sadly train companies will sign-up to the new ombudsman’s service on a voluntary basis.

Our managing director of public markets, Alex Hayman, said:

‘Thousands of rail passengers feel let down and ignored by train providers when things go wrong, so it’s no surprise that consumer trust remains stubbornly low in this industry.

‘Government must introduce an ombudsman that all operators must join. Only then will they be able to begin to restore trust and ensure that passengers get a much better standard of service.’

[more info in the convo above]

As well as the question of mandatory participation by all the train operating companies, there are many details to resolve in introducing a new Ombudsman service for the railways.

One of the compelling reasons for requiring full participation is that many journeys involve more than one operator and passengers should not be left guessing whether or not they have a right to redress for, or at least to the consideration of, things that have gone wrong. If is determined that participation will not be compulsory then two safeguards need to be introduced: First, the company should be required to show an informative statement on any medium they use for dealing with the public that it is outside the national rail ombudsman scheme. Second, it should be required to produce acceptable certification that its complaints-handling, compensation and remediation procedures are at least as good as those under the Ombudsman. For example, I could foresee that Transport for London could reasonably claim exemption and Merseyrail might also be able to demonstrate a high standard. Some of the commercial franchisees might be able to as well but once the scheme goes down this route the fragmentation becomes a problem in itself and it would be better to insist on total coverage with no exceptions, however good they are. If they are indeed that good then the Ombudsman will rarely be troubled.

One of the questions that needs to be resolved is how the compensation payments received by the train companies from Network Rail for delays caused by infrastructure defects should be allocated to passengers. At present the train companies receive much more than they pay out – because many delayed passengers do not make formal claims and automatic delay-repay is not universal across the industry. Should all the delay attribution payments go to the Ombudsman centrally for distribution in response to claims with any surpluses held for investment in passenger benefits? This is something which the Office of Rail and Road [ORR] considered in the context of the Which? super complaint. One of the outcomes of this was the recommendation to make passengers more aware of their right to compensation and to make it easier to claim. I don’t know how successful this has been – does Which? know if that policy is working in passengers’ favour?

On complaint resolution, I hope the Ombudsman will be empowered to resolve passenger complaints where the train company has not been able to [to the passenger’s satisfaction]. Perhaps this could follow the Energy Ombudsman model where the company would be given a set period within which to respond [this is one of the present bones of contention – there are no externally-driven timescales]; in the absence of a response, or a deadlock, the passenger should have the right to take it to the Ombudsman.

What powers should the Railways Ombudsman have? My suggestion is (a) no limit on the scope of complaints from fares and access to timekeeping and service quality, (b) to require the train company to offer an apology, an explanation of what went wrong, action to rectify the problem, and/or an award of compensation [financial or material as desired by the complainant], and (c) any ruling or award by the Ombudsman should be enforceable at law.

Should the Ombudsman make any compensation payments centrally for efficiency and finality, or should it be left to the train companies? Ideally the train companies will settle complaints and compensate passengers to avoid involving the Ombudsman, so if the Ombudsman is the last resort then there is a case for compensation where justified to be issued by the Ombudsman to the passenger with the ruling and not left in an administrative vacuum with the possibility of it being vexatiously delayed.

I see no reason why participation in the Railways Ombudsman Scheme should not be a mandatory requirement of each forthcoming new operating franchise imposed at the outset by the Department for Transport. Existing franchises that elect not to participate would have to consider their future commercial prospects if they entertain the possibility of winning the franchise again when it comes up for renewal.

If the rail ombudsman is anything like the Financial Services, Local Government Ombudsman and the Information Commissioners Office it would not be worth having. As the dealings I have had with LGO, FSO and ICO have been less than satisfactory. They are not timely or impartial. Sent a request into ICO beginning of 2017 still not been dealt with. FSO got in a muddle who was responsible for mis-sold PPI and took 2 years to decide it was not mis-sold got £300 out of them for their incompetence. LGO agreed leader of Braintree District Council did not have to keep promises and intentions and we are still suffering from that bad decision. Which has created accidents with and without injuries also affects residents with and without mobility problems. Guide dogs for the blind are running a campaign to get pavements back for pedestrians. Which means they have to spent hard earned donations on dodgy councils and dishonest leaders.

I don’t have a problem with the rail unions because they are consistently challenging rail operators who want to compromise on safety. I do have a problem with an insane franchising system that completely works against rail passengers and in favour of franchise holders who keep putting up fares without improving the standard of service they deliver to us. The treatment of people with disabilities trying to use rail services should be seen as a national disgrace. I am sick of Southeastern Trains. Getting compensation is a three ring circus and what you get for the inconvenience caused isn’t worth the effort. I have nothing but contempt for Network Rail because they have done very little to improve track and signalling. The franchises are up to a point hostages to Network Rail who in turn are able to keep doing what they do because there isn’t the legislation or independent body that can hold them to account.

Some of you will already be aware of this news, but today it’s been revealed that passengers will see yet another price hike in January 2018 as fares will rise by 3.6%.

This fare hike will see the highest rise in five years. Train companies are permitted to raise regulated fares by as much as the Retail Prices Index (RPI) is recorded for in July.

The Office of National Statistics records the inflation data and reports on both the RPI and the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The RPI was recorded at 3.6%, whereas the CPI was at a more modest 2.6% in July.

While there are no rises planned for Northern Ireland, this price rise will see ‘anytime’, some off-peak fares and season tickets in England and Wales rise. Scotland’s peak fares will also be affected, but off-peak fares will rise by a smaller amount as Scotland limits the rise to RPI minus 1%.

Our Managing Director of Public Markets, Alex Hayman, said:

‘This price hike will be a kick in the teeth for the majority of passengers who already feel they aren’t getting value for money for their train services. Commuters are forking out more and more money for their tickets but are still struggling with delays, overcrowding and dirty carriages on a daily basis.

‘The government has promised to put passengers first. So it must make sure that the new rail ombudsman delivers a step change in how passenger complaints are tackled.’

What we need to know, and have not been told, is what the inflation rate for operating train services is. After all, train operating companies are facing increases in costs like every other business but, without an import component, it might be lower than for other commercial companies. Is their electricity more or less expensive now than it was? – now that more energy-efficient trains are in service unit costs per passenger kilometre should have fallen; but many trains run on diesel which has definitely dropped in price. The companies are running longer trains and carrying more passengers – which should mean bigger profits as the economies of scale accrue.

As was fairly reported on the News today, the increase in rail fares is entirely the responsibility of the government and not the train companies or Network Rail . The train companies have some flexibility over how to distribute the pain but not a lot. I think it’s about time the overall economics were analysed to see whether this is a fair increase or just another fare increase [or a kick in the teeth as Alex Hayman elegantly expresses it – well, perhaps “expresses” is the wrong word here].

“Train companies are permitted to raise regulated fares by as much as the Retail Prices Index (RPI) is recorded for in July. The Office of National Statistics records the inflation data and reports on both the RPI and the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The RPI was recorded at 3.6%, whereas the CPI was at a more modest 2.6% in July. ”

Fascinating. And public sector pensions (Doctors, Nurses, Teachers, Social workers) are raised only by the CPI each year. One wonders if decent government actually exists.

Perhaps, Ian, the government is under the impression that public sector pensioners stop using the railways as soon as they retire and so are sheltered from such increases.

Lucy says:
30 May 2018

the latest gripe I have apart from my trains being constantly delayed, cancelled and short formed is the ‘new timetable’ – its ludicrous. I currently pay £4.5K for an annual season ticket from North Kent to all London terminals, meaning I could get to Blackfriars using two trains and then catch a tube to London Cannon St. all using the ticket. On May 20th they stopped this, so now part of the journey I paid for has just been cut out with no reimbursement offered. Also, my train times have changed so I either get to work ridiculously early or late. There seems to be nothing I can do ………… grrrrrrr