THE new Rail Ombudsman starts work today, with the aim of providing an independent judge of whether rail passengers’ complaints are justified.
The Ombudsman will go one step further than the present passenger watchdogs, Transport Focus and London Travelwatch, and decisions will be binding. Like the watchdogs, the Ombudsman will only deal with complaints when efforts to resolve them in other ways have failed.
The service is being managed by the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, a third-party company which already handles complaints about furniture.
The Rail Delivery Group said ‘the vast majority of complaints (99 per cent) are dealt with by train companies without the need for people to turn to an appeals process, according to data published by the Office of Rail and Road. However, rail companies together are supporting and funding the Rail Ombudsman to build greater confidence.’
The RDG’s managing director of customer experience Jacqueline Starr said: ‘This new nationwide process will put the customer at the heart of resolving complaints and give them even greater confidence that we’re doing as much as we can to get to a fair outcome.’
Rail minister Andrew Jones described the new scheme as ‘a significant step forward for passengers’ rights. This independent ombudsman will make sure passengers are heard and that they get a fair deal when train companies fall short. Rail firms must take this opportunity to improve their complaints process and to increase customer satisfaction.’
Labour was not so sure. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: ‘With over 50 million products, the rail fare system is probably one of the most complex in the world. Passengers urgently need simpler and more affordable fares. The Rail Ombudsman’s voluntary code and limited powers will do little to address these problems.’
All current passenger operators have joined the scheme voluntarily, but the Office of Rail and Road has warned that in future operators’ licences will include powers to enforce membership.
The ORR said: ‘ORR consider that membership of an ombudsman is a necessary measure which train companies needed to take to improve passenger trust and increase satisfaction in how complaints are handled.
‘The new Rail Ombudsman will have the power to make binding decisions on train companies which can include compensation and it is commendable that all operators have signed up voluntarily. ORR will closely monitor progress, however, and to ensure that consumers are given long-term certainty of the ability to obtain independent redress our intention remains to modify the licence to require operators to be members.’
Watchdog Transport Focus has also welcomed the reform. Chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘At last rail passengers will join other consumers in having access to free, independent, binding dispute resolution. The Rail Ombudsman builds on years of successful work done by Transport Focus to help passengers resolve complaints, and to feed back from this experience to inform government policy and the work of the rail regulator. It boosts consumer power and brings rail into line with other industries.
‘We expect the ability of the Rail Ombudsman to impose binding decisions to resolve complaints – and the fact it can charge train companies fees for doing this – will drive improvements to the way most train operators handle passenger complaints.’