/ 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?

David cooper-smith says:
17 June 2017

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.

Norman Tilley says:
20 June 2017

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.