Rail ombudsman: addressing the customer deficit or papering over the cracks, asks Chris Cheek…

 So the railways are to have a new ombudsman.

An announcement at the beginning of August came simultaneously from the Department for Transport and the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), and generally seems to have received a welcome in the press. There will no doubt be further opportunities for favourable coverage when the proposals are published during the autumn. This will come at the conclusion of the work being done by the Department in parallel with RDG, the regulator (ORR), Transport Focus and London TravelWatch. With a bit of luck, the appointment of a chair will generate a few more favourable column inches and of course then there will be the launch of the service – promised for the new year. The first judgement may also cause a few more ripples, and it will all be contributing to a feeling that the government is getting to grips with the railways.

From which you might gather that I am feeling more than a bit cynical about this. The development is going to be taking up scarce time and management resources in no fewer than four major bodies, all of which receive substantial amounts of public money in one form or another. Two of those bodies exist precisely to represent the views of the customer about the railways and already do a pretty effective job of holding the industry to account.  Think of all those meetings, agendas, minutes, position papers and negotiating points that are happening over this even as we speak. What Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister once dubbed as ‘much fruitful activity’.

Then there will be the work done by the ‘experts in consumer rights’ who will undertake the task of adjudicating on complaints, after a tendering exercise which is promised for the autumn. One cannot help but remark that it might also help if they knew something about running a railway. And what is this body going to do with itself? Why, take over work that is already being done by Transport Focus and London TravelWatch – who between them, we are told, adjudicated on 4,133 appeals from rail passengers in 2016/17.  Just in case you were wondering, that means that all this effort is going into dealing with 0.00024 per cent of passenger journeys.

And the reason for this apparently vital and urgent reform?  Well, apparently, the train operators can currently put up a metaphorical two fingers to the existing bodies if they don’t like their decision. With the new, shiny, all-singing, all-dancing ombudsman, they won’t be able to do that. According to the RDG’s press release, the new ombudsman’s decisions ‘will be binding on train companies’. Why do we need a new body to alter that?

And, by the way, what happens if the decisions made by these ‘experts in consumer rights’ who know nothing about railways turns out to be unreasonable, or impractical or – sin of sins – contrary to ’Elf and Safety? Are we going to end up with an appeal to the courts? Somebody has to be able to override an unreasonable decision.

Mucked about something shocking

I have long been an advocate of strong consumer representation in the public transport industry. But this particular exercise does seem to me like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

There is no doubt that it has been a difficult couple of years on the railways, and that customers have received a less than perfect service or ‘mucked about something shocking’. Southern, Thameslink and Southeastern customers have suffered particularly badly from disruption, caused by a combination of infrastructure works, rolling stock teething troubles, recruitment difficulties and industrial relations problems. Strikes in the north have added to the sense of crisis, and then there is the ongoing saga of Network Rail’s competence bypass. But the existing consumer bodies have hardly been silent during this period.

What’s more, I fail to see how an ombudsman is going to help. Will the new Office be able to making a binding decision on the RMT or ASLEF to go back to work? Or on Network Rail to stop upgrading London Bridge or Waterloo? Or on the government to stop havering and publish its plans for the next control period?  Or on the Welsh government actually to make a decision about which brand of tea to serve on the politicians’ special from Cardiff to Holyhead (failing that, deciding where the rolling stock is coming from to run their services after 2020 might be a good idea)?

The truth is that, as always, politicians like to pretend that problems and difficulties are nothing to do with them. Rail minister Paul Maynard can say quite happily in a statement that he is ‘committed to putting passengers at the heart of everything we do’ except that he knows full well that the Treasury will always have the power to pre-empt him or change his decisions because of a lack of funds. And that, ultimately, all Whitehall decisions are political and not consumer-driven (and, no, they’re not the same thing).

A succession of transport ministers since 1997 have found it very helpful to blame train operators when things go wrong, without acknowledging the extent to which ministers and their officials actually still control the railways – determining timetables, deciding on rolling stock policies, allowing or preventing infrastructure upgrades and now owning the tracks through a good old-fashioned nationalised industry. I see this initiative as another exercise in the same mould – once more allowing politicians to be seen as the customer champion in an industry which in reality they control.

Over the years, academics and observers of the Whitehall scene have increasingly begun to lament the poorer quality of governance and political decision-making in the UK – a deterioration which is beginning to be seen in the Brexit negotiations. However, there is one thing in which politicians have not lost their skill, and that is shifting the blame to somebody else.

In reality, the last thing we need in the rail industry is a new body with another set of initials whose role in life is going to make the reality of running the trains even more difficult and complicated than it already is.