Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by the Rail Passengers Council (FOR 72A)


  Further to the oral evidence given to the Select Committee on 5 November 2003, the Rail Passengers Council would like to submit this supplementary memorandum in order to clarify and expand on some of the answers given.


Q1347 Chairman: Are you quite happy with the present arrangements for passengers to make their views heard?

Q1348 Chairman: Is that true of all of your regions?

Q1349 Chairman: Do we depend on how good you are at gathering the information from passenger councils round the country?

  The RPC network is unique in Europe in that it is a statutory body with a duty to investigate issues concerning the passenger interest on the passenger railway and the right to make recommendations for change.

  The Rail Passengers Council and Committee network has worked hard to develop relationships with those it seeks to influence on behalf of passengers. This is true at both a national and regional level. As stated in our oral evidence, nationally the Rail Passengers Council has access to ministers and the chief Executives and Chairmen of national industry bodies. However, all the Rail Passengers Committees have access to their local decision-makers. It is a licence condition for Train Operating companies and Network Rail that senior level representatives meet with the Rail Passengers Committees twice a year. In reality, in most cases, there is an ongoing dialogue and the parties meet more often. Individual Rail Passenger Committees have developed relationships with local authorities and input into Regional Transport strategies and Local Transport Plans. Committees which have devolved government have good relationships with those assemblies, while others are developing relationships with the fledgling English Regional Assemblies.

  Across the RPC network, the views of the committees and council are sought by transport policy makers, and those that seek to influence or understand transport policy from a user perspective, often in advance of other parties. The network as a whole has good relationships with BTP and has representatives on a number of safety related bodies. There is unprecedented opportunity for passengers concerns to be expressed, through the RPC network, in places that can make a difference.

Q1349 Chairman: Do we depend on how good you are at gathering the information from passenger councils round the country?

Q1350 Mr Donohoe: How close are you to the passengers themselves?

  The primary focus of the Rail Passenger Committees is their regional remit. However, each Committee Chairman is a member of the national Rail Passengers Council and brings his or her regional experience to the council. The structure also allows committees to learn from experiences in other parts of the country, and to share examples of good or bad practice to aid local lobbying.

  The Committees interface with passengers in a number of ways. Day-to-day contact is through the postbag, telephone calls and emails to the committees from passengers who have usually had negative experiences on the railway and wish to make a complaint. The RPC network has an arrangement with the industry in that we act mainly as an appeals body, giving the operators the opportunity to handle first time complaints themselves. As such we are aware that the number of complaints we receive is the tip of the iceberg, and that we generally deal with passengers who have not been happy with the response from operators to their issues. However, we record all the issues brought to our attention, and committees escalate to the Council any issue that may have a national implication.

  Committees increasingly conduct passenger and stakeholder surveys, including the views from schools and hospitals, etc. Nationally, larger-scale, targeted passenger research has been conducted to probe attitudes and understanding of specific issues.

  The RPC has worked with other bodies in steering larger research projects and has shared results with industry and government departments and agencies, as well as making any research we own available on our website. Most recently we published research into passengers attitudes towards engineering works, which was led by the RPC and supported by Network Rail, RSSB and ATOC and is being used to inform current possessions strategy. That involved a sample of 3,300 passengers across age ranges and commuter, business and leisure market segments. Focus groups further probed the issues raised. Previous joint work has looked at attitudes towards compensation arrangements and perceptions of value for money. We are currently working with ATOC and Network Rail Major Stations to conduct passenger research to help identify and promote good practice in information provision, and we are on the DfT ASPEX steering group looking at public perceptions of rail.

Q1352 Mr Donohoe: If you were to be proactive would you not have your complaint telephone number listed in every station, perhaps even on the ticket because the public do not know where to complain? Is that not the fact of the matter?

Q1353 Chairman: They are not very clearly displayed, are they? I do not dispute it but you have to really look. It is like, where is the nearest lift on the station. There are certain secrets the rail industry likes to keep to itself, you are one of them.

  The RPC has conducted a benchmarking exercise to understand passenger awareness of the RPC network. We are aware that this is low and we are working on improving this. Pilot profile raising campaigns in two committee areas showed that it was fairly easy to raise awareness of the RPC. However, before this is rolled out nationally, we have to ensure that we have the resource and infrastructure to deal with the increased demand for our services. We have requested funding from the SRA to undertake this work. As part of this work we intend to introduce single points of contact through a number of communication channels—there are currently nine points of contact for each channel. This will include one local rate 0845 number, a single PO Box address and a common e-mail address for the whole RPC Network. This will also complement the website we introduced last year. All these contact details will be prominently advertised at stations and on trains and other activities and marketing will actively promote them to passengers. An upgraded telephony infrastructure and an enhanced contact management system will provide better customer care for those who contact us. We also intend to introduce a central complaints handling service for committees to ensure consistency and to enable us to cope better with fluctuations in demand regionally. The present arrangement is such that passengers are asked to contact individual committees depending on the journey they have experienced, and our present telephony system makes calls transferred between committees difficult. Each committee currently handles regional complaints with a fixed number of staff and this makes handling peaks of demand difficult and this impacts upon the ability of the committees to undertake the other areas of their work.

Q1372 Tom Brake: Has your organisation looked at rural services in a particular area and come to any conclusions as to whether the level of investment and the environmental impact of an under used rural service justifies the environmental price? Would it not be better to have guided buses using the railway instead?

Q1373 Chairman: What about bus substitutes, do you accept that as an alternative?

  The important function of rural rail is in providing an alternative choice to the car. This has implications for social exclusion as well as the environment and the rural economy; 28% of households nationally do not have access to a private car, and the old and the young are often unable to drive themselves. It has been shown that where the Beeching closures took place, car dependence in those areas grew (M. Hillman & A. Whalley, The Social Consequences of Rail Closures, PSI, 1980), particularly as bus replacement services proved unpopular and were then themselves removed.

  Under most current franchises, Public Service Requirements (PSR) specify the minimum level of service required on certain routes, if these routes were not considered to be commercially attractive. The PSR was to be "based on" the BR timetable at the time of privatisation. The definition of PSR was revised in 1997 and, whilst still "based on" the BR timetable, specified that the PSR would protect those services which were non-commercially viable, were socially necessary but which did not have very low usage. There should not be, therefore, many two person trains running on the rural network as most of these did not remain in the definition of the PSR. In many cases, any services above the PSR on the financially strapped rural railway were stripped out, leaving, in some cases, an infrequent service that does not provide a viable alternative to the car. In many cases it is a chicken and egg situation, "show us the demand and we'll put on the service" vs "there is no demand because there is no service".

  Metropolitan areas well served by public transport, like London, hardly noticed the effects of the fuel protests as readily as car-dependent rural areas. London, incidentally has the lowest car ownership rate in the country. However, the lack of public transport infrastructure brought some parts of the country, for example Wales and the West Country, to a near standstill. Many rural areas have higher petrol prices than metropolitan areas, and many of them have EU objective one funding status owing to their relative lack of wealth. Yet access to jobs, goods and services is dependent on access to a car or an infrequent public transport service.

  The recent foot and mouth epidemic demonstrated that tourism is of a far higher value to the rural economy than agriculture. However in peak holiday season road congestion is a major problem in popular tourist destinations such as the Lake District, or Devon and Cornwall. Rail plays a number of important roles in this, such as by bringing visitors to the area in a manner which does not have the adverse impact on the natural environment that car-borne tourism does. Rural lines enable tourists to access more remote areas. Overseas tourists would not travel as far as they do at present, and may not visit outlying areas, such as the Highlands. Much of this tourism is small scale and low key but collectively brings in significant amounts of additional income into rural economies that increasingly cannot survive on traditional activities alone.

  One of Visit Scotland's corporate objectives is to increase the spread of tourism expenditure. This can be justified on both economic and social grounds. The economic case is founded on the relative under-utilisation of capital in the more remote areas ie it may be cheaper to persuade tourists to go to under-utilised hotels in Deeside than to build expensive new hotels in Edinburgh with the associated congestion costs. There is also a powerful social argument in as much as further depopulation of rural Scotland is undesirable and tourism is the most likely source of commercially viable jobs in such areas. Community Rail Partnerships can bring local authorities, bus and rail service providers, National Parks and the Countryside agency together to promote the use of branch lines, connections and the destinations and local economies they serve. The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership for example promotes car-free days out.

  The fear in rural areas is that if the contracted rail service is removed and replaced by a non-regulated bus service, there will be no public transport provision at all. The railway is currently the main public transport service that is contracted in these areas. Rural areas do not have the passenger base to make frequent public transport services commercially viable year round, and therefore are dependent on public subsidy. Whereas the RPC Network does not advocate rail being the best solution to every situation, we do advocate understanding the travelling needs of users and their likely travel habits should rail not be an option.

Q1381 Ian Lucas: Was one of those issues why we have some of the highest rail fares in Europe or are passengers content with that situation?

Q1383 Ian Lucas: Is that not an issue you should be making, your voice should be conveying that to the SRA to do something about it? What did you say about that?

Q1384 Ian Lucas: What was the satisfactory response you got when you raised these points?

  The RPC network put together a comprehensive response to the SRA's consultation on fares policy in October 2002. In addition to seeking the views of our members, we sought the views of 300 rail user groups and commissioned research involving passenger focus groups and analysis of demand elasticities should regulation be extended. The response is available on our website, or hard copies can be provided on demand. The RPC did further work in April this year with Railfuture, to consider a commercial case for a national off-peak railcard. In the run-up to the announcement of the new fares policy, the RPC publicly reiterated its main points in the press that: fares should not rise above inflation while performance remains poor; that operators should ensure they collect all the revenue that is owing to them; that, while incentivising off-peak travel through lower fares was to be encouraged, pricing off demand at peak times was unacceptable; and that an affordable, walk-up railway must be preserved.

  The SRA's revised fares policy published in June reflected a number of our representations. We continue to engage with the SRA on this issue and expect to input into any further development of Saver ticket policy or of a national railcard.

November 2003

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