/ Travel & Leisure

Train companies failing passengers – what if we could choose?

Every year Which? asks how satisfied people are with banks, energy companies, shops, airlines – the list goes on. But we’ve never asked about train companies – until now.

You might be thinking there’s a reason for that: you can’t choose your train company, whereas you can switch your energy company or shop somewhere else on the high street.

But surely that captive market makes it all the more important for train companies to do a good job?

Well, our train survey of 4,092 passengers found very low levels of customer satisfaction. The overall customer score across all types of train journeys was low at 48%. Commuter journeys did worst, with a lowly score of just 44%. And leisure journeys fared slightly better, with 53%.

Virgin Trains looks to be on the right track, being awarded the highest customer score (64%) among all train companies in our survey. Bottom of the table was Southeastern, scoring just 40% – overcrowding, high fares and delays were cited as key issues.

The fast, the slow, the even slower

But while you don’t usually have a choice of train company for most services, that isn’t always the case. Here’s an example. My parents live in Leeds; I live in London. Cue lots of trips between the two.

It took me a while to twig this, but there are actually two companies running trains between them. The quicker East Coast train takes 2 hours 20 minutes via Doncaster, whereas the slower East Midlands train takes 3 hours via Sheffield. The latter has cheaper tickets and older trains I find comfier, but far fewer journeys.

Then came further enlightenment – there was an even slower (4 hours) and cheaper East Midlands train, which has a very leisurely mosey before finally heading to Leeds. My wife made it abundantly clear that we wouldn’t be taking that one again…

It’s the same with Birmingham to London, where there’s a choice of Virgin Trains, London Midland or Chiltern Railways. Three different routes; three different prices; and three different customer scores.

What if we could pick between train companies?

However, despite privatisation of the railways, there’s usually never a direct choice to pick a train company that offers a better service or cheaper ticket price. That’s because of how the industry is structured, making it difficult for new companies to come into the market and sometimes prohibiting direct competition.

But if you did have a choice, would you pick a train company based on how good its service was, or how cheap its tickets were? It’s clear that train companies need to improve across the board – maybe if we could pick between them it would pull up the quality of all their services?

Armley Heights says:
23 March 2012

I too travel between Leeds and London frequently; I live in Leeds and visit friends and family in the South East. There is a third option: Grand Central, who provide a comfortable and affordable service out of Bradford, Wakefield KG and Pontefract. Its worth it if you can put up with an extra connection to Leeds. I work in Ponte, so its a great choice for me! However, my daily commute on Northern Rail from Leeds to Glasshoughton is underwhelming. It’s an hourly service with old rolling stock, on a line blighted by cable thieves, and is prone to being delayed by higher priority services in and out of the city. And its quite expensive.

Grant says:
23 March 2012

I am a regular commuter using Southeastern services. Whilst some improvements have been made it’s worth pointing out how SE manipulate the timetable to their benefit. Journey times have increased so that what was a 50 minute commute now takes an hour. So whilst they argue they have improved punctuality, in fact they have merely written in regular delays into the timetable. Journey times between Kent and London are now longer than they were in the age of steam. Though I acknowledge a great deal more travellers use the trains it is sometimes difficult to see how that is an improvement.


My wife and I live in Ledbury, and my wife has reason to travel to London every other month.
From our town she catches a train to Worcester, then Virgin train to Paddington – this is a First Great Western line, but most long distance trains are operated by Virgin ???
The trains are delayed/cancelled every other trip – on one trip when they had left Paddington it was diverted to Cheltenham, and told a coach woeuld be waiting to take the passengers on to their destinations.
On arrival at Cheltenham the staff new nothing about it.
My wife says the trains are dirty, usually too cold or too hot (often the air cooling simply isn’t working).
A cup of coffee (when available) has recently gone up to over £2.00.
Virgin top operator – not in our book !!!!!

Kingsbury Jn says:
25 March 2012

How can you blame Virgin Trains for a service operated by First Great Western?? Both they and London Midland operate trains between Ledbury and Worcester. The Paddington train is solely a FGW service which ,btw, travels via Oxford and not Cheltenham! The only reason for such a route would be for weekend engineering closures during the Cotswold line upgrades.

sue says:
23 March 2012

Use East Coast fairly frequently between Aberdeen and York – very rarely are there delays. Tickets are cheap if you book 12 weeks ahead and first class very good value with complimentary food and drinks. Cross country also run this route once a day – used it once – never again!!

Skywalker says:
23 March 2012

First Great Western is an expensive rip off. Their North Downs line is hopelessly overcrowded, the trains are often late and the heating/air con don’t work and sometimes the trains aren’t cleaned over night. FGW charge 120 for a single from London to Plymouth. For 140 EUR, my wife and I traveled from Venice to Florence to Rome and onto Naples. 3x the distance, 2 people and all on Italy’s 350km/h high speed line!

Jim Miller says:
23 April 2012

I think that, like a lot of the moans about rail companies, exacerbated I am sorry to say by a deep anti-rail prejudice that seems to pervade Which?’s methodologies and reports, this is nonsense. I just looked up a single fare from Paddington to Plymouth for tomorrow at about 1100. I could get one for £40.50, and with a railcard that would have been about £27. I agree that some fares structures are complex and confusing, but it really is easy to get good deals if you try, including in my experience some at times close to peak periods.

RonAjrm says:
25 March 2012

As a retiree I travel only occasionally on the Reading to Waterloo Line via Ascot (South West trains), going up in the afternoon and returning in evening. The train – ride, punctuality, cleanliness – is excellent. The fare I consider expensive but OK. My dislike of the journeys concern behaviour of some of the other passengers. Going up, it is prolonged loud mobile phone conversations. Coming back, it is the bringing on of food – hot, smelly and disgusting eating manners. I usually move away but in the evenings the trains are very crowded so I have to stand, at least as far as Twickenham.

Douglas says:
26 March 2012

I don’t think its right that train companies get exclusive concessions on routes. If the idea of privatisation is to create competition, concessions ends up creating monopolies with an illusion of competition. In that case, we would be better off re-nationalising the railways. Otherwise, there should be a minimum of two companies on every route with alternating schedules. This would mean that if you want to change train operator, you just have to shift your schedule by 13-30 minutes in either direction. It would also force operators in direct competition on popular, over-crowded and over-priced routes. Will the Tory government go for it? Not on your life!

tony knifton says:
28 March 2012

It was interesting to see the comments regarding Merseyrail Electrics (Merseyrail) and as a regular user am happy with its rating in the Regional Services section. However, I would point out that that we do not have any ‘newer’ trains – the units at present in use have been running for around 25 years. I understand that they were second hand when received , being previously operating around the south of England/London area. We were promised new trains in 2013, but this has been put back by at least two years because CrossRail was deemed more important . You also mentioned an increase in frequency, but this has happened on only one route, Liverpool to Chester, where trains now run on a 15 minute frequency, bringing it in line with all but one of the other services.

Eddy says:
29 March 2012

Well done Which? for turning the spotlight on the Train Operating Companies.
Leaving aside for a moment whether or not rail privatization was a fundamentally flawed, or badly executed, policy that left us in this mess, with the worst railways in Europe; I have to add my appalling experiences on the daily Commute to London Bridge with Southern.
Southern have one of the worst run and least well served lines, the London Bridge to Uckfield line, where 1 of the 2 tracks is mothballed on part of the line; where there are 2 trains an hour at peak times; platforms are too short to serve some carriages, and it’s standing room only. Demand at peak times is at least Twice available capacity, and yet Southern don’t add any additional service. I tried First class for a while but even then I only had a seat less than 50% of the time… It’s all the same to Southern as all commuters pay, regardless of seat or not. Most of us have no alternative TOC to turn to.
It’s simple: It should be “no seat – no pay”. That way TOCs get paid when they provide a Service, and they don’t get paid when it’s No Service. It would give them an incentive to add capacity since it would result in increased revenues (and happy passengers on seats).

Sidney P says:
2 April 2012

Train travel is a difficult topic for Which? because experiences of passengers differ so widely across the country. But since rail passengers are a very weak lobby (compared to motorists) and represent a tiny proportion of the electorate, it’s all the more important for Which? to engage the government on our behalf when, and where, things are bad. I live on the Midland line from St Pancras to Sheffield, served exclusively by East Midlands trains. The service is generally very reliable, the station staff are particularly friendly and helpful, and the trains, both new and old, are well-maintained and comfortable. The main problem is the extortionate fares in the peak. For a journey of around 65 miles, I now pay just under £60 return after the one-third discount for having a railcard – and car-parking adds another £7.50. The government acknowledges that fares are too high, but says in the recent Command Paper ‘we need to look seriously…..at asking those passengers who drive the need for capacity enhancements….to pay more for their journey’. In other words, it’s going to get worse!

When I compare EM trains with other companies I realise how fortunate I am. Virgin Trains may have attracted good reviews from other respondents, but I find their trains cramped, stuffy and about two-thirds of seats have no decent view out of the window. They want you to pretend you’re flying! I use Stansted Express to reach the airport from London Liverpool Street. Some trains are new; they are fast and clean but very bumpy while other trains are filthy and frankly worn out. Thameslink, operated by First Capital Connect to Gatwick and Brighton, has reasonable fares, but slow services, drafty trains and is hopelessly overcrowded in the peak – these problems are of course being addressed in the great Thameslink upgrade, programmed by British Rail for completion in 2000 but put back by about 20 years as a result of privatisation.

Unquestionably the worst ills of rail travel in Britain result from the fragmentation of what ought to be an integrated national system, whether publicly or privately owned. On-track competition is largely impractical and wasteful of capacity. Competitive fares on alternative routes do not need separate companies to operate them. With no emphasis on the system as a whole:

1. Fare structures are utterly confusing and illogical and many staff themselves do not understand them. At my local station, a conscientious member of staff takes the trouble to search through a range of options for my journey, which often turns out to involve multiple bookings or tickets to places I’m not going to, so as to get the best deal. Elsewhere, staff don’t do this, and passengers are frequently charged more than necessary.
2. There is no effort to provide or guarantee connecting services. ‘We run our bit of the railway, take what we can get and stuff the rest of them’ sums up the policy of train companies in this regard.
3. There is no commitment to improve services or vary them in relation to demand. Since everything is rigidly specified in advance by government, train companies have fulfilled their obligations when they have met the spec, not when they have actually given passengers what they need.
4. There is no strategy or co-ordination over which trains are used where. Some places have hopelessly outdated ‘Pacers’ while more modern trains are sold off to the Coatians etc because they are ‘surplus to requirements’ of the train company running the service.
5. Railway catering is a complete lottery. There seems to be an assumption that only first class passengers eat meals, whether they are hungry or not, and the rest of world lives on snacks.
6. Information about services is seriously deficient – no maps of the network, no marketing of tickets they don’t want you to buy (rover tickets for example), ferocious penalties for passengers who transgress the fare rules.

I recommend Which? to analyse the latest Command Paper, and ask how many of the issues that appear to worry Government are actually self-inflicted and would be non-existent in a properly managed, national system.