Our annual train passenger satisfaction survey certainly hit the headlines last month after we found worryingly low levels of satisfaction for some of our biggest train companies.

We surveyed more than 7,400 regular train passengers across all of the train operating companies and compiled scores based on passengers’ overall satisfaction with a company and whether they would be likely to recommend it. This is the same criteria we use across all of the sectors we investigate.

We understand that passengers, especially commuters on crowded routes in and out of London, can be hard to please, but were still shocked to find 11 of the 19 companies we looked at had customer scores of 50 per cent or less overall. Greater Anglia and Southeastern were bottom of the pile with just 40 per cent. Top of the table was Merseyrail, which gained 70 per cent and became the first Which? Recommended Provider in the rail sector.

Same names at top and bottom of list

Critics pointed out that satisfaction scores were higher in the National Rail Passenger Survey carried out by Passenger Focus and that this survey has more respondents. This is true, but the surveys ask different things – we look at overall satisfaction over the last 12 months and likelihood to recommend, whereas the NRPS looks at satisfaction with the journey just undertaken. Interestingly, regardless of the actual score, the same names appear towards the top and bottom of both lists and a very similar order of train companies are in between. Rather than quibbling over research methodology, we think companies should be looking to address the issues raised by their customers. This is the third year we’ve run this survey and the same names repeatedly appear towards the bottom of our list, suggesting there is more to be done in terms of customer service and satisfaction.

It’s especially disappointing to hear customers reporting some train companies are falling down on the basics of customer service, for example dirty carriages and toilets that don’t work. Around one in ten passengers told us they wanted companies to focus on making trains cleaner – twice as many as wanted better on-board catering or more staff at stations. It can’t be acceptable that First Capital Connect and Greater Anglia scored just one star for cleanliness on commuter journeys. 

We accept that some things such as old, inherited rolling stock, over-running engineering works and the weather, for example, are beyond the control of train companies. However, season tickets cost thousands of pounds, so it is reasonable that in return people expect to get a decent service including a seat and a serviceable toilet.

It is heartening to hear FCC is investing more in cleaning trains and will have 40 new carriages by 2016. Greater Anglia is in the process of improving three fleets of trains and installing free wi-fi at 100 stations, while Southeastern told us improving punctuality and reliability are priorities for 2014. This is a good start in winning customers back.

A few days after our survey was published, the Office of Rail Regulation (See interview page 50) found that most passengers weren’t aware of their rights when a train was delayed or cancelled. This tallies with our findings that 11 per cent of people had reason to complain about their last journey, yet three-quarters of them didn’t, while 16 per cent of passengers said they had been delayed on their last journey, rising to 25 per cent of commuters, yet just 7 per cent said they were informed about their compensation rights. Of the people who did complain, half were dissatisfied with how the complaint was handled. This suggests better information and complaints handling when things do go wrong is another area for improvement.

Missing a trick?

We are encouraging passengers to share their feedback on our campaigns website, which we’ll collate and take directly to the train companies. With seven franchises up for renewal in the next two years, we think train operators need to respond to passenger demand, listen to their passengers and act on their complaints. We want to see passengers’ experience put right at the heart of the tender process so companies respond to consumer expectations and just as importantly can be held to account if they don’t. This is a sentiment echoed by Passenger Focus and Rail Minister, Stephen Hammond, in response to our survey.

It seems rail companies could even be missing a trick – around half of the people we asked (53 per cent ) said they wouldn’t mind paying more if they saw an improvement in service in return. Half (49 per cent) would pay more for a more reliable service, and a similar number (48 per cent ) would pay more to guarantee a seat. Four in ten (42 per cent) would pay more if the money went towards new trains and a third (32 per cent) said they wouldn’t mind so much if stations are refurbished.

We will run our survey again towards the end of this year and we’d love to see more train companies eligible for our Recommend Provider status. Until then it seems some train companies have got to do much more to get back on track with their customers.