Passengers' complaints increase 40% on new ScotRail franchise
ANGRY rail passengers have bombarded train chiefs with 7,000 complaints in the three months since the ScotRail franchise changed hands, representing a 40% increase on the previous quarter.
Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show that since October 17, when First Group took over, 2,000 more complaints have been received from customers than in the previous three months.
The news will come as a blow to the company, which announced an ambitious string of promises to customers after winning the franchise.
Robert Samson, director of the Rail Passengers Committee in Scotland, said the rise in complaints underlined that current services were inadequate.
He said: "First ScotRail has shown it is focused on passengers but, in the short term at least, its hopes of a better service have not materialised. The problem is performance is patchy."
When First Group won the franchise it promised trains would be more reliable as a condition of the 1.9bn subsidy the company will receive under a seven-year agreement.
The rise in complaints has emerged after a week when Glasgow to Edinburgh rail services were severely disrupted.
First ScotRail was forced to reduce its quarter-hourly service to the capital to half-hourly following a track fault at Winchburgh, near Linlithgow, on Tuesday morning.
A blown fuse on a signal box caused further delays on the same route the next day.
The rise in complaints also follows the news that nearly one in three services on commuter routes into Edinburgh arrived late in the last month.
First ScotRail declined to give details about the rise in complaints, saying only they related to operational performance.
Dr Iain Docherty, a research fellow at Glasgow University’s School of Business and Transport, said: "[First ScotRail] had ambitious plans when they won the franchise and did a good PR job at the beginning, but by making promises they have raised customers’ expectations. When [complaints] figures like this come out it shows that passengers expect quick delivery."
Ken Sutherland, of Rail Futures Scotland, a group that has carried out research into the Glasgow-Edinburgh service, said First ScotRail was "living on the margins of reliability". He added: "It is now coming home that the Glasgow to Edinburgh route will never be anything more than a ‘touch and go’ service until the line is fully electrified."
First ScotRail managing director Mary Dickson denied the company was failing its passengers. She said: "It is no surprise to me that complaints have risen. It is a typical trend that when you take over a business and raise its profile, this will happen. We raised the stakes because we knew we faced tough challenges."
In defence of the company’s first three months in charge of ScotRail, Dickson said that 56% of recent delays were attributable to Network Rail, the body responsible for maintaining track and signal infrastructure, and other operators.
"The problems last week were infrastructure-driven," she said. "It was not because our trains did not work. Winchburgh is prone to suffering, but we have appointed a dedicated analyst to identify problems."
However, a spokesman for Network Rail said that maintenance inspections at Winchburgh were continual and exceeded statutory requirements.
The Executive will take over responsibility for the Scottish operations of Network Rail, and will assume sole responsibility for the First ScotRail train-operating franchise in April 2006.
Bristow Muldoon, the Labour MSP and convener of the local government and transport committee, said: "The transfer of powers to the Executive should make Network Rail more accountable to the public."
A spokesman for Network Rail denied it was not being held to account for the train delays it caused. He said: "We are accountable to the train operators because we have a contract with them. We are also regulated by the Office of Rail regulation and if we fail to deliver our targets we are penalised."
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