Tuesday 12 March 2019 5:03 pm

Rail review head Keith Williams hints at compensation role for regulator

Reporter at City A.M. covering City politics, transport and law. Get in touch: alexandra.rogers@cityam.com

Reporter at City A.M. covering City politics, transport and law. Get in touch: alexandra.rogers@cityam.com

The former British Airways chief executive tasked with a full-scale review of the railways has hinted that the industry regulator could be tasked with handling compensation claims.

Keith Williams, who was appointed by the government to carry out the review in the wake of last year's May timetable chaos, suggested the rail industry could learn from the airline industry in tasking the regulator with handling compensation claims.

Speaking at a board meeting of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, Williams said European legislation changed the way customers claimed compensation from airlines and became a benchmark for how claims were made.

"I actually do think it brought benefit in terms of the airline and in terms of ensuring that we put regularity and punctuality at the heart of what we did – if we couldn't do that, we'd be paying out compensation," he said.

Read more: Beleaguered Grayling set to announce major new review of rail services

Williams said the routes to claiming compensation were "not obvious" and that it needed to be "made clear". He said he has asked the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), to look at how it thought compensation should look in the industry.

"In the airlines industry, the Civil Aviation Authority has that role," he said. "Whether we need the same in rail is a question for the review."

Last year the government commissioned Williams to carry out the "root and branch" review of the railways following the May timetable fiasco, in which thousands of trains were delayed, cancelled and overcrowded. The findings of the review are due to be published this summer, in time for the government to produce a white paper in the autumn.

The saga led to renewed calls for renationalising the railways, which Williams said he had "not ruled out".

He said the franchise system had become "too prescriptive" over the past 25 years and that passengers were happier with the levels of service provided to them 10 years ago.

Today Transport Focus released new research that will inform Williams' review. The main findings showed that passengers did not feel the railways were run for their benefit and that there was a lack of accountability when things went wrong.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: “Like most people using the railway, most of the passengers who participated in this research know they are not getting the train service they are paying for. This research underscores that passengers want a more reliable service that is better value for money and – whichever model is selected to run the system – that they want to know who is in charge of their railway.

“For many, the issue of accountability – or a lack of it – coupled with a perceived lack of ‘customer-focus’ leads passengers to believe the system is based around the needs of the railway rather than their needs. This has to change."

An ORR spokesperson said: "We are in the process of developing wide-ranging reforms to guidance for train and station operators that will improve accessibility for all users. We are also keen to build on our previous work in the area of delay compensation and welcome the opportunity to further advise in these areas”.

The findings coincide with research from IT services provider Fujitsu which says the more than a third of the British public feels the transport sector is outdated and unfit for purpose. 

Read more: All aboard the blame train as report reveals failures in rail chaos

Nearly three-quarters of passengers want investment to modernise services, while nearly half think the sector is "stuck in the past".

Rabih Arzouni, Fujitsu chief technology officer, said: “Evidently, British public transport services are not currently meeting consumer expectations of efficiency and modernisation. Other consumer-centric sectors like retail and healthcare pride themselves on incorporating the latest technologies to improve services for end-users. Public transport has a long way to go to turn around consumer sentiment so that people feel they are receiving a service which is fully utilising digital tools."