Rail minister’s postbag ‘is overflowing with complaints’ about passenger assistance

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A disabled minister has told the rail industry that his postbag is overflowing with complaints from disabled passengers who are not receiving the assistance they need to use its services.

Paul Maynard (pictured), the rail minister, was speaking after the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published new research on the quality of the assistance services provided by train companies.

He said the regulator’s research showed what was being done well by the industry, but also “what is not being done so well”, adding: “In this research we do learn rather a lot”.

ORR published three pieces of research: on the Passenger Assist scheme, which allows disabled passengers to book assistance in advance by telephone, email and the web; on Turn Up And Go (TUAG), which provides assistance to rail passengers who have not booked in advance, and which companies must provide “where reasonably practicable”; and on the overall performance of these two assisted travel schemes.

The free help provided by rail companies includes assistance such as boarding or leaving a train, help with luggage or with buying tickets, assistance finding passengers’ way about the station, or with booking the use of a ramp to board or leave a train.

As part of the research, mystery shoppers carried out more than 300 journeys across England, Scotland and Wales earlier this year to test how well TUAG was working.

But only four-fifths (79 per cent) of those who asked for assistance both with boarding and alighting on the same journey leg received it.  

And of the mystery shoppers on 21 journeys who pressed the help buttons at stations to ask for assistance, only six received that help from rail staff.

One mystery shopper said: “I went to the ticket office which was full of staff and only one other customer, I spoke to a guy who just grunted and said that they didn’t have assistance.”

Another said: “The man refused to help me around the station and threatened to put me back on a train to [where they had come from]. A member of the public had to rescue me.”

A third mystery shopper, who has a cognitive impairment, said: “Member of staff did not seem to understand why I needed assistance. They seemed to assume that I should be able to manage.”

Another said: “I was informed someone would come to help me find a seat but no one showed up.”

And yet another said: “The staff were all very rude and made me feel humiliated.”

But there were also many positive comments, including one mystery shopper who said: “Helpful members of staff, I didn’t feel like I was in the way.”

Another said: “Journey was flawless, quality service was provided.”

The research also found that only four-fifths of Passenger Assist customers (81 per cent) received all the assistance they booked in advance, while more than one in 10 (12 per cent) received none of the help they booked.

It also found that more than half (54 per cent) of those disabled people and carers who took part in a survey were not aware of Passenger Assist.

Maynard said: “Getting people to the right place at the right time, and communicating information down the line; this is the bread and butter of any rail company.

“But for a variety of reasons, disabled people aren’t getting the service they are owed.”

He said some disabled passengers had been “made to feel an inconvenience” or had been confronted with staff who were “sceptical” as to whether assistance was really needed.

Maynard said his “inbox and postbag overflows with complaints from those who have not received the level of service they are entitled to when seeking passenger assistance on the railway” and that disabled people “need to see the strong hand of the ORR” guiding improvements to assistance services.

He said he wanted to see the regulator “wielding” its enforcement powers to “deliver justice” and acting as an advocate for disabled passengers by “challenging the industry at each and every opportunity”.

Despite the research findings, a consultation on ORR’s plans for improvements and raising awareness of the schemes found 71 per cent of TUAG mystery shoppers said they would recommend the service to other people with the same impairment, while 85 per cent of Passenger Assist customers said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

ORR is calling on rail companies to do more to increase awareness of the assistance available, strengthen reliability, and ensure all staff receive better training.

Stephanie Tobyn, ORR’s deputy director of consumers, said: “When travel assistance works as intended, passengers find it a good service, but clearly more needs to be done to make it more reliable and consistent.

“A growing number of people with disabilities are travelling by train, and we want to make rail travel easier and more straightforward for them.

“That’s why we’ve carried out this research and identified where the service can be strengthened.

“We’re looking forward to working with industry and passenger groups to make improvements to this important service.”