Passengers’ satisfaction with Britain’s railway stations has improved a little in recent years, but remains low for many stations and for many of the facilities provided at them, according to a report by the National Audit Office. There are also increasing passenger capacity pressures at some of the largest stations during peak periods. There is a gap between rising passenger expectations, and what the government and the industry can afford and justify as value for money. But there are also organisational barriers standing in the way of potential improvements. After previous unsuccessful attempts, the government has recently begun to address some of these issues and, in particular, to explore innovative ways of bringing investment into stations from outside the rail industry.
According to today’s report to Parliament by head of the NAO Sir John Bourn, the 95 largest stations enjoy the highest levels of passenger satisfaction. These are fully staffed, have a range of facilities and carry more than half of all rail passengers each year. Passengers are consistently less satisfied, however, with the more than 2,000 medium-sized and small stations that are unstaffed or staffed for only part of the day and that have few facilities. Even where satisfaction with train punctuality and reliability has itself been low, passengers have been even less satisfied with stations.
Satisfaction with station facilities and services varies considerably. Passengers are most satisfied with passenger information, staff assistance at stations and, at staffed stations, connections with other forms of public transport and ticket-buying facilities. But levels of satisfaction are low for the overall station environment, cleanliness, state of repair, personal security, and car parking. Research carried out for the Department for Transport suggests that improving personal safety would result in significantly more journeys being made by train, much of which would occur outside peak hours.
Network Rail owns most of Britain’s 2,507 stations and is responsible for their structural repair and renewal. It also operates 17 of the largest stations. It leases the remaining stations to train operating companies (TOCs) who take responsibility for day-to-day maintenance and operations, such as selling tickets and providing travel information. TOCs have to comply with basic station requirements set out in their franchise agreements with the Strategic Rail Authority.
Dissatisfaction with the station environment and station upkeep and repair can be attributed, in part, to most stations being over 100 years old. But, there are also shortcomings in maintenance and repair arrangements and the rail industry has been slow to respond to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, which required reasonable provision to have been made at stations by October 2004 for disabled people to travel. More than half of Britain’s stations are not fully accessible to disabled people. The ORR has developed in consultation with the rail industry a Stations Code, expected to be introduced in April 2006, to clarify responsibilities for repairs and maintenance at franchised stations and encourage better management of them, and in March 2005 the Department for Transport announced plans to spend £370 million on improving accessibility at 285 stations over the next 10 years. The SRA has proposed a strategy prioritising the available money at the busiest stations so that over 80 per cent of journeys would be from step-free stations by 2015.
At privatisation, the government expected that TOCs would improve their stations beyond the basic requirements in response to commercial incentives to attract more passengers and secure higher revenues. This approach has led to investment in passenger information systems and CCTV, but not delivered the other outcomes envisaged. The low level of passenger use at smaller stations makes it difficult to make a business case for investing in improved or additional facilities. And there is a gap between rising passenger expectations and what the industry can afford. The SRA planned to modernise 730 stations but had to cut down to 68 stations and halt other new improvement projects to match the funds available. Around £148 million was spent on station improvements in 2003-04, focused on larger stations.
Considerable investment has been attracted into the improvement of stations, but the industry needs to attract more funding and support from the private sector to meet passenger expectations. Various obstacles are discouraging investment in station improvements. Network Rail’s procedures for approving station improvement projects are regarded as complicated and inflexible and, at typically seven years, the short length of their franchise terms discourages TOCs from making investments that might take 10 to 20 years to achieve payback. The government has recently begun to address some of these issues through, for example, the idea of setting up of Station Companies to manage a portfolio of stations and fund their improvement as part of urban regeneration schemes.