Broken rail complaints system leaves passengers high and dry

Britain’s broken rail complaints system has led to train companies failing to deal with passenger concerns effectively and is even failing to treat customers with basic courtesy, new analysis from Which? reveals.

The consumer champion looked at 12 months of rail regulator data and found fewer than half of rail passengers were satisfied with how their complaints were dealt with by train companies.

Even worse, fewer than one in five passengers with three operators – Northern, Govia Thameslink Railway and Great Western Railway – said they were satisfied with the outcome, handling, or both, of their complaint.

These findings demonstrate why it is vital that the new rail ombudsman helps ensure train companies deal with passenger complaints better in the first instance. Where complaints are escalated, the ombudsman must deal with them effectively.

Which? looked at Office of Rail and Road data on satisfaction with complaint handling from April 2017 to March this year – a period in which there were more than 500,000 complaints about rail services.

For some train companies as many as seven in 10 (71%) passengers felt more negatively about the train company after the way their complaint was handled. And across every train operating company in the analysis, no more than half of passengers thought their complaint had even been taken seriously let alone resolved.

This drops to around a fifth for Govia Thameslink (21%) and Northern (20%), which is particularly worrying considering the data relates to the period immediately before this year’s timetable chaos, that led to a huge spike in passenger complaints for both companies.

Northern was last or in the bottom three of the 18 train companies in every aspect of the complaints process which passengers were asked about.

To add insult to injury, less than half (46%) of respondents said they were satisfied that Northern had even been polite in dealing with their complaint – an issue shared by almost half of customers with four other companies. Across the board the highest score for simply being polite was three-quarters (76%).

For some train companies, a mere one in six were satisfied with the time taken to deal with their complaint and the clarity of information provided.

Either CrossCountry or Chiltern Railways scored highest in almost every category but with satisfaction still frequently at 50 per cent or below among the best performers, the findings are little cause for celebration.

Trust in the industry is chronically low and Which? is concerned that these huge failings in the complaints process are not helping the situation.

While the consumer champion believes the new and independent rail ombudsman can go some way to ensuring passengers are no longer ignored, it should only be viewed as a last resort.

The creation of the ombudsman should also help ensure train companies listen to their passengers and resolve their problems in the first instance, so they have no need to escalate their complaints.

Alex Hayman, Which? Managing Director of Public Markets, said:

“Clearly there are serious underlying problems in the current rail complaints system, which need to be addressed.

“Train companies have to step up and start delivering good customer service when things go wrong – informing passengers about their rights and dealing properly with any complaints that arise.

“We have been calling for this much-needed and independent new rail ombudsman. It should incentivise train companies to listen to passengers in the first place and, when necessary, step in to make sure passengers get the redress they deserve.”


Kat Harrison-Dibbits, 36, a Northern commuter said:

“I was blocked on Twitter by my train company for complaining when my train was cancelled, very delayed or too full to get on.  

“It left me feeling like they didn’t really care and weren’t interested in engaging with me and the disruption they caused to my life.

“I have to pay them money as I have no other option for getting to work. They need to be held more accountable.”

Ellis Ford, 26, South Western Railway passenger:

“The whole experience travelling with South Western Railway is exhausting and I’ve even cried a fair few times due to the utter frustration that I can never get to work on time. SWR and Network Rail’s incompetence is starting to seriously affect my work and mental state.

“SWR and Network Rail must be made to address these failures rather than passing the buck to each other via the press and social media. It is utterly insulting given I pay almost £400 of my hard earned wages per month to feel like we are ignored and treated like complete fools.

“I also disputed a delay repay rejection for when I was delayed for an hour in February and I’ve still never received a response despite contacting them repeatedly. So much for their promise to respond in 10 to 15 working days.”

Notes to editors

  • Which? has been campaigning for a new rail ombudsman. It is due to come in by the end this year having first been announced in 2017.

  • Source ORR – Passenger satisfaction with complaints handling survey – financial year 2017-18. Passenger satisfaction with complaints handling by TOC and financial year – Table 14.18:

  • Satisfaction with complaints outcome:

  • Satisfaction with complaints handling:

  • Negative sentiment after the complaint has been handled:

  • Satisfaction with whether the complaint was taken seriously:

  • Satisfaction with whether TOC was polite:

  • Satisfaction with time taken to deal with complaint:

  • Satisfaction with the clarity of information provided by TOC about complaint:

  • Passengers were asked whether they were satisfied with the following:

  • complaint outcome

  • how complaint was handled

  • how easy it was to make the complaint

  • time taken to deal with the complaint

  • complaint being taken seriously

  • complaint being successfully addressed by the train company

  • train company was polite

  • train company was helpful/ knowledgeable

  • train company was informed about complaint progress

  • clarity of information provided by the train company

  • train company provided complainant with information they promised to send

  • negative, positive or neutral sentiment after contact with train company, compared to before    

  • Other notes:
    1.     This survey data shows passenger satisfaction with train operators’ complaints handling.  After a passenger makes a complaint to a train operator, they are invited to participate in a follow up survey by an independent research company, commissioned by ORR, about their experience of how the complaint was handled.
    2.     The survey asks questions relating to the complaints process and resulting outcome.  The complainant is asked to rank their satisfaction with each on a five point scale or, in some instances, to provide a qualitative response via an open text box. The response ‘satisfied’ refers to both satisfied and very satisfied, and ‘dissatisfied’ refers to both very dissatisfied and dissatisfied.
    3. The response ‘not applicable’ has been removed from the questions above.
    4.     There were 29,606 responses to the survey during 2016-17. Throughout 2016-17 operators joined the survey at various points throughout the financial year.  By the end of 2016-17 17 out of 23 operators took part in the survey. By the end of 2017-18 23 operators were part of the survey, with 41,789 responses.

  • C2C, Caledonian Sleeper and Virgin Trains West have not been included in this analysis due to low number of responses (we excluded all TOCs that attracted fewer than 50 responses).

  • TFL Rail performs poorly in a number of categories, but given it will fall outside the scope of the Rail Ombudsman, it has not included in the press release. London Overground has also been excluded for the same reason.

  • Number of complaints was calculated by applying the complaints rate for 2017/18 to the number of passenger journeys for the same period.

    Complaints Rate – Table 14.8

    Passenger Journeys – Table 12.5

  • ORR passenger data on the types of complaints train companies received during the financial year 2017/18 suggests punctuality/ reliability was the biggest at 25%, followed by facilities on board at 8%, sufficient rooms for passengers to sit/ stand at 7% and ticket buying facilities and online ticket sales, both at 6%.

Press Release