AFTER First Great Western was revealed to have customer service among the worst in the country, a leading consumer organisation has revealed it has received a deluge of complaints about the service.
Independent consumer body Which? is calling on one of the Westcountry’s biggest train operators to improve its services after it scored less than 50% for customer satisfaction in the Which? 2014 annual train survey, putting it among the bottom five UK train companies featured in the poll.
Which? has now issued the train operator with a dossier presenting its results and highlighting the areas of service that need to be addressed.
The Which? survey asked more than 7,400 regular train passengers to share their opinions and experiences of travelling with the country’s 19 major train operating companies (TOCs).
It then compiled average scores based on passengers’ overall satisfaction with each company and whether they would be likely to recommend their service to a friend.
It found that 11 out of the 19 TOCs failed to score over 50 percent in the questionnaire, with FGW coming in at 15th place with an average customer satisfaction score of 45%.
Complaints submitted about the rail company, which runs trains between the South East, the South West and the South of Wales, predominantly centred around crowding, punctuality, communication and ticketing.
Comments from passengers included descriptions of “gross overcrowding” and “cattle truck conditions” on busy trains, with more than 10 percent of survey respondents reporting that they had to stand on their most recent journey with the company.
Many respondents also said they were confused by over-complicated ticketing systems and frustrated by ticket machines, as well as complaining about high ticket prices, with one passenger commenting:
“Fees are atrociously over-priced heading in to Paddington. Why should this line be so much more expensive than the others?
“I have a colleague who comes in on the south eastern train service over the same distance and pays almost a grand less. The trains are certainly no more efficient. What are my fees going towards?”
In terms of communication, customer criticisms mainly focussed on poor information provision – particularly when services were disrupted – and unsatisfactory responses to complaints.
And when commenting on punctuality, many passengers complained about the frequency of delays and cancellations, a lack of forward planning and insufficient replacement services.
In response to the survey, Which? has drawn up a report for each of the major TOCs highlighting areas for improvement.
The dossier for FGW urges the company to:
“Rail passengers have been telling us exactly how they feel about First Great Western and have identified some big areas for improvement,” he said.
“With the cost of train fares continuing to rise, we hope the company will listen to its passengers, make improvements quickly and start offering better value for money.”
First Group spokesman, James Davis, said the company was aware it needed to do more to win the trust of its customers.
“Consistently delivering punctual, reliable trains is the key to building trust and credibility - the more continuous a standard is delivered the more credible it becomes,” he said.
“The provision of timely services was impacted by severe weather conditions in the survey period in January 2014, compounded by Network Rail infrastructure challenges.
“With our monthly performance falling drastically during these times, we realise that our ability to deliver services fell short of the standards expected from our customers.”
Mr Davis added that the company had already put a number of measures in place to address the issues raised by the Which? survey.
These included increasing standard class capacity on all high speed trains – which would deliver 16% more standards class accommodation – openly advertising opening times for its social media feeds and launching a mobile app to allow customers to purchase tickets on their phone or tablet.
Which? did stress that not all responses to their survey were negative, saying that 13% of comments made about FGW provided positive feedback about its services.
Crowding was a top issue for many First Great Western passengers, representing 22% of comments:
“Because the train we travelled on was not properly prepared and the booked seats marked up, all passengers from the start of our journey were herded into a few carriages and carriages left empty. People were jammed against each other as well as the external doors. Not comfortable and I felt unsafe. Cattle truck conditions.” – David.
“Cramped conditions. Too many tickets sold for size of trains! No seats available, no seat belts either. Why is this unsafe travel permitted on trains but not on coaches, planes or cars? Expensive tickets and passengers packed into filthy noisy conditions. Most expected to stand the whole journey!” – Mike.
Although Which? acknowledged that there were many delaying factors – such as weather – that First Great Western couldn’t control, customers still lodged many complaints about the punctuality of the train company:
“The trains are late, don’t turn up, go to the wrong location, are overcrowded and decrepit. I pay over £4,200 a year for a season ticket but if I were to pay per journey and then claim a refund for the roughly 66% of journeys per week that are messed up I would save a fortune.” – Kevin.
“Years of delayed trains, for reasons ranging from no driver, leaves on the line, technical failure of train. I now have to add 50 per cent travelling time to any journey if I expect to arrive in time.” – Kai.
A fifth of passenger comments related to the company’s poor provision of information:
“I was told to get on a wrong train by two members of staff. When the conductor came round and told me the ticket didn’t cover that time he wouldn’t let me get off and subjected me to a tirade of abusive and very public humiliation. It was not my fault and even if it was, that kind of customer service was appalling and completely unacceptable.” – Thandi.
“Shockingly bad planning and communication by First Great Western. Our 7.09 train from Henley to Paddington has not been running. We are dumped at Twyford and left to the tender mercies of whatever turns up. Illuminated signs are not up to date and station staff are also ill informed...They stick extra people on the platforms, wearing yellow tabards, but they are badly briefed - or not briefed at all.” – Patricia.