THE chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest transport groups has defended the record of his company’s rail operations in the face of ongoing complaints about delays and poor service.
Tim O’Toole, who heads FirstGroup, said that European operators are learning lessons from Britain on how to perform as their own markets opened up.
Consumer groups consistently criticise UK train companies over delays, overcapacity and pricing, but O’Toole said Britain outperformed countries in continental Europe.
Speaking exclusively to Scotland on Sunday, he said: “Even with the carping in the UK there is no rail operator in Europe that comes within miles of the UK by any measure. Statistically, we shoot the lights out compared with Europe. We are the safest and our passenger growth has been much higher.”
Other countries in Europe will be opening up their networks to competition over the next five years, and British companies are preparing to move into the continent.
O’Toole said it was no surprise that the likes of Deutsche Bahn in Germany and the French operator SNCF “are doing everything they can” (to protect their markets) and are tendering for UK business.
“They are having to learn,” said O’Toole, adding that services such as the Eurostar cross-channel trains and the French high speed TGVs were the exception rather than the rule.
“We all look at Eurostar and the TGV and say how fantastic they are but if you look at the rest of the network it is nothing like the UK.”
He said UK rail services are criticised “because we are so important to people. What is more miserable than commuting?”
He said service levels were improving but passenger expectations continued to grow. “It requires huge investment to keep up with it,” he said.
FirstGroup says that passenger numbers on UK rail are now at their highest for 90 years, doubling since privatisation from 761 million a year in 1996 to 1.4 billion in 2012.
The company claims this is not just down to growth in the economy but because passengers are choosing rail travel and benefiting from such things as smart ticketing.
Expansion in revenue means some taxpayer subsidies have been cut and the number of people working for train operators since privatisation has grown from 40,000 to 50,000.
O’Toole said passengers talked about their bad experiences but admitted that in the main the services were good.
• Tim O’Toole is the Monday Interview in The Scotsman tomorrow