/ Travel & Leisure

Rail: are they wheelie on track to deliver better service?

Train tracks

It was bittersweet news for rail passengers last week – Southern passengers learned they’ll get compensated for the poor services they’ve endured of late, they, along all other rail users, discovered fares will rise by an average of 2.3% from 2 January. But, do you think your train service is improving?

If you’re one of Southern’s passengers then, the chances are that, this compensation offering is small fry for what you’ve endured recently.

And whether you’re a passenger of Southern or not, you may well be troubled by the news of fare hikes, which just so happens to be the largest average rise in three years.

Surely such an increase would be all the more palatable if you could be guaranteed improvements to your service?

Rail passenger rights

As some of you may recall, last year, we made our super-complaint to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), after our research into access to compensation for rail delays and cancellations found that millions was going unclaimed every year, with only around 34% of affected passengers actually claiming.

It was clear to us that not enough was being done to inform passengers of their rights to compensation. And so we launched our Make Rail Refunds Easier campaign and made a super-complaint to the ORR.

In November, the government responded to our super-complaint on compensation for rail delays. It confirmed that it supports all improvements recommended by the ORR.

Over the past year, alongside our almost 50,000 supporters, we’ve been campaigning to get train companies to make their passengers more aware of their rights to claim compensation for train delays and take steps to make the process of claiming easier.

Getting a better service

And indeed it seems that rail passengers should be expecting improvements. The government has agreed that much more is needed from train companies and it has set out its own plan to ensure the regulator and industry push through these improvements promised in response to our super-complaint.

In fact, today, the government announced plans to reform the way rail infrastructure is managed with a review of how Network Rail shares the running of the tracks with train companies. According to the government, its plan to coordinate track control between Network Rail and train companies will improve the daily running of railways and therefore improve services for passengers.

Some of you will also recall that back in October, after waiting and waiting, we finally saw an extension of compensation rights for rail passengers to be included under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

And at the same time it was announced that rail passengers will be able to claim ‘Delay Repay’ compensation when trains are delayed by 15-29 minutes. Previous rules had only enabled passengers to claim for delays of at least 30 minutes.

This new compensation threshold will be introduced in a staggered roll-out, starting with Southern passengers, who will be able to claim for these delays from 11 December. Dates for other train companies are yet to be confirmed.

On the right track?

So, while it would seem that we could well be on the right track to seeing real improvements for passengers, much more is needed to get rail passengers a fairer deal and a better service. With improvements promised but still yet to be delivered, our work here is far from over.

Announcements on next steps for Which?’s rail campaign will be coming soon. But in the meantime, tell us: do you think train services are improving? What else would you like to see to to improve your train service?


There is rather a lot of misinformation in this debate. As a long distance commuter (1hr 45min each way daily) for 10 years and a regular traveller for 35 years before that , as well being a chartered engineer with friends in the industry the main issue is generally not the TOC (train operating companies,) except for a few notable exceptions, but the part of the railways that is in public ownership, namely Network Rail. I watch contracts that a commercial organisation would complete in a few months takes a year or more. The refurbishment of Ipswich station, installation of a lift and the bus car and access road contracts have all run on for unbelievably long periods and would close down any commercial retail operation if it took so long. I understand Network Rail has reduced the productive professional engineering staff compliment to barebones and those remaining are being treated like dogs. I suspect the place is full of accountants who have not got a clue as to how their penny pinching is destroying engineering competence and heritage. We need radical thinkers in place at the top who have an engineering background.

The refurbishment of Ipswich station was a joint project between the TOC, Abellio Greater Anglia, and the local council.

Agreed, Phil. I don’t think Network Rail were involved in the Ipswich station refurbishment at all, but they have been causing delays all over the Great Eastern Main Line through power failures, signalling failures, overhead line faults, and major reconstruction work between Ipswich and London. The TOC [Greater Anglia] also runs some unreliable locomotives and diesel and electric units which they have now pledged to replace. Nobody else’s fault, but this line also seems to attract a disproportionate number of suicides which add to its woes.

Well Network Rail are really in a no-win situation, if they try and upgrade the infrastructure it causes delays which people complain about but if they don’t it leads to equipment failures which again causes delays. Nobody on the railways likes delays, they’re expensive, cause a lot of extra work and above all are dangerous. Many of the power and signalling failures are caused by cable thefts and rats chewing through the insulation which are beyond the control of NWR and the TOCs.

John Emerson says:
8 December 2016

The admin’ of the railways is a joke. They have been criticised for years about their poor service, delays and overcrowding but they have done absolutely nothing about it except to make things worse.
Like the rest of the public sector the last people to be considered are the public.

Pete says:
8 December 2016

Public transport is hopeless – so unreliable. Trains too are less reliable than a couple of decades ago when I used them more often.

The buses and railways will not thrive again or serve the public until they are once again taking into public hands . Corperate greed can make shareholders happy but never passengers.

Southern Rail should be disenfranchised. Their service has been extremely poor for a long time before all these disputes with the union.

I would like to add also that perhaps consumer group and government must put more pressure on Southern Railway and Thameslink ( MP for Hove Peter Kyle does not do much ). I think refund admin fee 10 pounds must be abolished when you purchase online , withdraw ticket from self-service machine and then can’t travel. Also if I would like to claim refund for unused tickets for several tickets Southern railway charges 10 pounds admin fee for EACH claim even if you put all tickets in one envelope and fill in one refund form. Its not fair! The most important they should also lower off peak time to 9am not currently 10 am when they offer 9:58 train to London Victoria from Brighton ( 2 minutes before you can pay lower off peak fare)! Peak hours must be capped to 9am in the morning maximum or even earlier 8:30 as most of the people start at 8:30am working day. They should extend off peak departure until 5pm as well. The whole railway system is a ripp off and rigged by fat cat bosses who rips off the whole country !

I am staggered by the action of our railway unions and even the department of transport. For a long time our railways have suffered from a lack of investment. We now have a railway network that is little better than Victorian times. Old rolling stock, diesel engines, tracks that are affected by anything other than a sunny day, shocking out of date stations and then to compound this on Southern Tracks a ludicrous action by the RMT over drivers and guards and there actions. The lack of investment is one major issue but the lack of interest, accountability and control over our railways is truly appalling. And then to top it all we have annual fare rises far outstripping inflation and it just happens. No discussion. Do it.

Get rid of the Ministry of Transport, remove the minister him/herself and create a new department which is sub divided into roads, rail and air and then managed and controlled by experts in those fields and make them accountable for there actions. To get our roads and rail to where they should be will take 10-20 years but if we carry on as we are it will never happen.

Until then take the franchise away from it’s current owners, impose the action to remove guards from trains, It happens elsewhere in the World (and even here in the London Underground-ever heard of that RMT) and ensure that any fare increases are linked to the performance of the train company (for every average minute you are over the agreed punctuation time you get 0.1% off any proposed increase on that business).

The action by RMT in the Southern dispute is not ludicrous. They want to preserve their members’ jobs sure, that’s part of the reason they exist, but the guard on a train has an important safety role to fulfil in the even of an emergency. Thankfully these incidents are rare on British railways although you’d be surprised at how often they have to deal with drunk or disruptive passengers or someone who has been taken ill whilst on a train.

Many passengers, particularly women travelling alone, don’t feel safe or comfortable on DOO trains so it’s not surprising people should be making a stand against what is a cynical move by Southern’s owners to increase their profits.

Isn’t it the recognition of the wider requirements for passenger assistance that has led to the provision of On Board Supervisors in place of guards on the Southern network? A third of trains in the UK run with only a driver [some on the same tracks as Southern]. As I understand it that is not Southern’s intention. They intend to have a second member of staff on every train so far as practically possible. I do not condone the GTR management’s rough-handed way of going about the transition but with the DfT’s hand up their back they are in a difficult position. The intransigent RMT could have handled themselves better as well so there is contempt for the passengers on both sides.

I’ve been a union convenor and I’ve been a manager as well and I’ve always believed that to get into the sort of mess we see on Southern indicates failure on both sides. I see a group of passengers are proposing to charter their own trains.

You might find this article interesting:-


Its high time both sides stopped using the public (the passengers that pay their salaries and wages) as a football to try to get their own way. They both seem to have become entrenched and now need to dig their way out, with no doubt some face saving to be negotiated.

However, today it is reported that one transport user group is trying to charter trains after Christmas to deal with the strikes planned by drivers. Good for them. But I wonder what obstacles will be put in their way to prevent them getting to work (I wonder if all sides actually recognise how important it is for the vast proportion of people to do this?).

When I hear about services in other countries I am ashamed of our rail services- I use the trains a great deal – mainly GWR and the service is abyssmal- not as bad as Southern- but they clearly have aspirations to reach their standards!!! They are so unreliable and missing concerts, theatre etc etc is a common occurence even if you have allowed 3 hours to do a journey that should take half that time, If I had a £ for every time I hear- we are sorry to announce- I would not need a train as I could afford a private jet.

We need a ticketing system which is adaptable to Flexible Working needs of modern day business life. I propose to work 2 days a week at home yet the most cost effective option is still an annual season ticket.

The root cause of the problem as with most what are strictly public sector domains is a lack of investment in the infrastructure and resources essentially we never recovered from the hammering the war brought to the UK rail network only to be hammered due to political dogma and shortsightedness in the Beeching era. Yes we did get some minor benefits from the 50’s Modernation Plan but it would appear poorly managed with untried and untested technology. The same applies to the Advanced Passengerr Train APT saga and dare I refer to TSR2, Harrier and EE Lightning 1 developments elsewhere. Most rail passengers especially those affected by the Southern dispute will not realise that the majority of rolling stock in use dates from pre-privatisation when you and me as taxpayers owned the rail system and that this items together with vast areas of infrastructure was carved up and virtually given away at low cost to the private train operating companies and to the numerous middle men set up to make profits rather than to provide a service. The truth hurts but there is no guarantee that a civil service led public rail system would work any better but one thing it could greatly assist with if managed properly is in bulk buying setting cost levels for prcurement and standardisation which inevitably saves costs as most car manufacturers are doing with building small ranges of chassis variants on which to base their visual designs.

Well I hope the procurement folks can do a better job than they did on the £1billion contract for the new Siemens Class 700 rolling stock on Thameslink. Month after month of door problems and other technicals resulting in trains being taken out of service, announcement/display systems that are still virtually random on every journey. No tables, no armrests, no wifi. Metro-trains configured trains deployed on a medium long haul Brighton to Bedford route designed for maximised standing. Somewhat non-conventional that it was another Siemens company who signed off on acceptance? hmm? but it won’t be passengers seeing much of any non-performance penalties (if any). Well, lets see if they can do a better job than the old rolling stock if it snows (due tomorrow).

I am not entirely sure, but I think the Department for Transport specified the new trains for Thameslink because at the time there was no certainty over which company would be running the service.

Today, in a discussion on Radio 4 with the shadow transport secretary, it was agreed that driver-comtrolled doors were acceptable on shorter trains, a practice carried out on other lines. The concern was on longer trains where the driver would have more difficulty, or take longer, to monitor all the doors, on his screens.

So, is a solution for Southern to have driver controlled doors on shorter trains, and a guard controlling doors on longer trains? Alternatively, allow more time for drivers to monitor doors, and close them in groups rather than all at once? Are not practical solutions better than political posturing on all sides?

Good idea. But let’s not forget that on Southern there will nearly always be an On Board Supervisor and platform dispatch staff to assist the driver. Peak railway services are characterised by passengers boarding in a fairly disciplined manner at each station and then all alighting at the terminus, unlike the situation on the Underground where in the central district there is a mix of boarding and alighting plus a throng of passengers also on the platforms; during peak hours all busy Underground platforms have dispatch staff in radio communication with control and able to broadcast to waiting passengers.

On the London commuter services most trains will eventually have twelve coaches so trains will be over 240 metres in length with two or three sets of sliding doors on each coach. I feel this capacity will justify extra train crew and platform staff in order to comply with a reasonable risk assessment forming part of the safe working practices. I think that a station-by-station and train-length-by-train-length approach would be a more appropriate way forward, properly rooted in real operating conditions, than the wild and indiscriminate contributions made by all sides in the Southern dispute so far. Longer trains with more passengers produce higher revenues so additional personnel are affordable [on the inbound services at least] and should be provided under a risk-based policy rather than through a dogmatic declaration that by its nature will not be universally appropriate .

For Southern Rail, 2017 is going to start from such a low point they should be able to show an improvement. They have ceased providing anything approaching a rail service along the south coast for quite some time. It’s hard to believe they re-introduced their “full” service only a few months ago. Industrial relations have fallen even further and appear to be irreparable, staffing levels were minimised so they were reliant on overtime to deliver the service and they threatened sackings and other disciplinary actions. The staff actually seem to have been offered a decent deal now – job security for the duration of the franchise (more than most of us will have after the Brexit vote), a one time cash offer etc. However if you keep treating staff and customers with such disdain then eventually some will go elsewhere – people moving house, changing jobs, using cars – but most of us are stuck with this cycle of incompetence and decrepitude for the foreseeable future.

The Southern service is a national disgrace and reflects badly on the Operators, Unions, Government and this country.
Handing the service to TFL is not a long term competitive alternative that offers commuters a better deal and could be interpreted as a Union victory to greater influence at taxpayer expense.
Look at the history of poor industrial relations, political bias and mismanagement – visit York Railway museum and repeating the same mistakes is painfully obvious.
Break up the franchise and introduce driver only trains with new operators that offer commuters a better deal.

scotrail with old rolling stock are now missing out stations to save on fines. sometimes train doors fail to open which raises laughter at customer complaints in glasgow. and passengers. get delivered at any station. the train doors open at. Compensation is a joke. as in my case. they tried to blame me for doors not opening. Got fare refunded. although it took months. and a threat to go to small claims court. Abellio. gotta be worst train company in europe

In the south east and many other parts of the country a better service isn’t possible in rush peiods owing to the removal of platforms and tracks into major cities especially London. Most trains are now full length ( 12 coaches – longer will require new signalling) 3 less at St Pancras, 5 less at Kings Cross and various reductions at many other termini. There are also few tracks. Yet we are experiencing an increase in trravel owinbg to the big increase in populationand congestion on the roads. So whatever you are bing promissed it will be almost impossible fo it to be delivered and most of thrse platform removals have been taken over by new buildings which would haveto be removed. HS2 will have little impact as it will remain important to run high speed trains to provide connections to major centrs not on the new high speed line. So expec things to get worse gradually. The private companies can’t do anything and most of the rfeduction in capacity was undertaken by BR in the 1970s and1980s.

Those are good points but you are overlooking the extra capacity being provided in London by the north-south Thameslink corridor that avoids the need for trains from outside the capital to terminate in London, the new terminating platforms coming on stream at Waterloo following the diversion of Eurostar to St Pancras International, the additional Platform 0 at King’s Cross, the London Overground East London Line that takes passengers from south east London to north east London avoiding major termini but with short links to them and the Underground, and of course the upcoming Crossrail [Elizabeth Line] which will divert millions of passengers away from Liverpool Street and Paddington and take them through the central area underground. And Crossrail 2 is now on the drawing board so Greater London is getting a huge share of national infrastructure expenditure and much extra capacity along with many smaller schemes and digital signalling enhancements to improve journey times and allow more trains to run. Thameslink is designed to operate a peak hours service of 24 trains per hour in each direction through the City to diverse destinations when it is fully in operation [virtually nose to tail] – this will release a lot more capacity at the existing terminals.

Your overall premise is right though, and one has to wonder whether the railways must continue to carry everybody that turns up and wants to travel on the next train. This is hugely uneconomical as well as uncomfortable and eventually the bullet will have to be bitten that people cannot just move to Hampshire or Northamptonshire and expect to get to London everyday by 08:30, so relocation of employment must become a political priority.

Francis Donnelly says:
11 January 2017

As a 30yr veteran commuter on Brighton mainline, I can tell you the union dispute is only a small part of the overall problem. For example, this week, an ASLEF walkout day with no Southern service and Southern commuters diverting to (the parallel) Thameslink. How on gods earth then could a peak Thameslink train arrive in ‘short formation’ (8 cars instead of normal 12), now absolutely doubly rammed, and then on top of that, arrive in London 20mins overdue? – all with the tracks virtually clear due to the strike? It’s GTR, the same operating company. Couldn’t they have prepared? Dangerously overcrowded was an understatement.
Just a sample of hundreds of similar stories I can tell you about travelling on the Brighton mainline over the last two years. How about the week before (Thameslink), eight journeys made, seven delay-repay claims submitted, every journey either over 15mins late or cancelled. Note there is *no* union dispute on Thameslink – it has been DOO since the last century. Don’t blame it all on the unions. The whole set up is a shambles.

The Thameslink trains are almost never on time during the peak. For two years I went from South London to St Pancras and I think in all that time about twice I came in on time. Towards the end of the period I was usually 10-15 minutes late and too late for my connection at Euston.

Does the timetabling need to depart from planning based on “X trains per hour”. I assume the timetable was not achievable for this stretch of track given the number of services running on it.

Even less realistic was the timetabling for the Tring to Euston line which never reached Euston on time in the afternoon on my way home.

Am I correct in thinking that freight always takes priority too? That always introduces a delay.

Northern Rail has emailed to say they will not respond to any more of my complaints. Transport Focus are totally uninterested and allow them to act with impunity which makes them a publicly funded non-entity. Why have a regulator who doesn’t regulate? Why have a privatised public service who are allowed to ignore complaints. The minister for transport Chris Grayling is aware of this and has done nothing.

Transport Focus is a a government-sponsored independent watchdog that exists to deal with complaints about the railways and the motorway and trunk road networks and to campaign for improvements, but it is not the Regulator – that is the Office of Rail and Road [ORR] so you might be better off referring your concerns to them.

Has Northern Rail given a reason for deciding not to respond to any more of your complaints? Understanding that could help ORR if you choose to approach them.