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:

Photograph: Getty Images


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

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.