Train passengers can't decide whether they're happy with services or not

Passenger satisfaction surveys record wildly opposing results.

For many British train passengers, there's a sizeable disconnect between their own perceptions of UK rail services and the assessment from more official sources. While regular customers continue to complain about soaring fares, sweat-box carriages and overcrowded platforms, wider statistics suggest that the performance of train operating companies is on a continual upward curve.

Such was the case with the latest National Passenger Survey (NPS), a twice-yearly survey of British rail passengers undertaken by UK public transport watchdog Passenger Focus. The most recent NPS, which took the views of more than 30,000 passengers across the UK and was published at the end of January, revealed record overall passenger satisfaction levels of 85 per cent, with no train operating company (TOC) scoring less than 80 per cent.

Less than a month later, however, the NPS's mostly sunny conclusions were met with a dissenting voice – one that seemed a better fit with the outlook of Britain's beleaguered commuters. The second annual train satisfaction survey by consumer watchdog Which?, published in mid-February, made grimmer reading for the industry. The survey of around 7,500 regular rail users found that more than half of the UK's TOCs had a customer satisfaction rating of 50 per cent or lower, and despite regular fare increases, a mere 22 per cent of those surveyed felt that services were improving.

At first glance, it seems an impossible scenario – two passenger satisfaction surveys, published within weeks of each other, recording wildly opposing satisfaction levels for the same group of passengers. If we assume that both surveys can't be right, there's an obvious question: is the British public satisfied with its rail services or not?

On closer inspection, that assumption about the impossibility of both surveys being correct might be premature. These surveys vary drastically in their scope, objectives and, most importantly, methodology – a point that might have confused casual observers as the methodology of the surveys isn't made completely clear in the press releases accompanying them.

By far the biggest difference between the surveys is the scope of questions asked of passengers. The Which? survey asked passengers to rate their train journeys over the last 12 months, based on two key criteria – overall satisfaction with the brand and the likelihood that the respondent would recommend the brand to a friend. The responses to these questions fed into an overall customer score.

The NPS, meanwhile, limited the scope of its questions to the journey that respondents had taken on the day they were surveyed. According to Passenger Focus, this method allows its survey to build a much more specific picture of the UK rail landscape, down to individual routes and times. Limiting questions to that day's journey also helps combat the generally accepted principle that bad experiences have a greater effect on a customer's perception of a brand than positive ones.

It would be easy to accuse Passenger Focus of tailoring the reach of its questions to paint a rosier picture of UK rail services, especially given its origin as a government-created organisation. After all, under the NPS the respondent could rate a single good journey positively, even if the last 10 trips were a disaster. But it's impossible to deny the advantages of the NPS's methodology to support its goal of improving customer service through focussed feedback.

The perceived contradiction between these two surveys is ultimately a red herring. The surveys were conducted with different methods, and the idea that passengers could be happy with individual journeys but dissatisfied with TOC performance over a longer stretch of time doesn't necessarily contradict itself.

The Which? survey's value lies in recording the long-term impressions of daily commuters and other regular rail users, many of whom clearly feel overcharged and underserved by their operators. The NPS survey, meanwhile, provides an important service by identifying problem areas with an accuracy and specificity that is arguably unmatched anywhere in the world.

But for casual media observers and the general rail-going public, who are likely to take away little more than the top-line statistics (a BBC news report pointed out the contradiction between the surveys but didn't attempt to explain it), confusion is the unsurprising result of accepting complex information at face value. And perhaps the responsibility lies with organisations like Passenger Focus and Which? to ensure that the information they present is placed within the proper context, both in the reports themselves and in the press releases that bring them to the public's attention.   

Read the full feature here: http://www.railway-technology.com/features/featureuk-rail-passenger-satisfaction-british-public/

Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.