‘..99 and a half just won’t do’: zero tolerance on Passenger Assist ?
28 September 2018
The old Dr Feelgood song probably sums up what most disabled rail passengers think about Passenger Assist – the pre-booked rail assistance service. Great when it works but a real problem when communication breaks down.
It is great that Passenger Assist exists. Few other networks in other countries offer such a comprehensive assistance service. Many disabled and other passengers who need help rely on it. In the year 2017-18, as many as 1.25 million requests for help were made. Many passengers don’t book and rely on turning up and finding staff to help them if they need it.
It is great the industry commits to delivering this service, and it’s great that this is all backed up in a licence condition regulated by the Office of Rail and Road (‘ORR’). In other words, if you want to run trains in Great Britain you have to sign up and deliver.
We stared to monitor the passenger experience of the assistance service back in 2008 and then again in 2010. Passenger Assist was introduced in 2012 and we ran a third wave of mystery shopping in 2013, to assess if any noticeable improvements had been made. Since then this work has been taken over by the ORR who have continued to monitor the number of booked assistance requests met. But their research last year showed that one in five who booked Passenger Assist did not receive it. That figure represents considerable inconvenience and discomfort for 250,000 individual passengers with disabilities who were let down.
The acid test of any system, organisation or company is how well it treats the most vulnerable users. Surely, we should tolerate very few failures? Maybe the targets and investment behind them are simply not stretching enough? Perhaps there should be a target for compliance with passenger assist requests: 100 per cent? News that the industry is investing in a new IT system and an app to boost Passenger Assist and help for the disabled has to be welcome, but passengers will judge this on the key factor: does the promised help, as booked or expected, materialise?
The industry also wants to increase awareness about and take-up of Passenger Assist. We welcome this but worry that additional staff will be required to provide the service, even as it is now offered. Those staff will need training and we are concerned that the current level of staff competence is inadequate.
The times when assistance is available - even at some larger stations - also varies widely and for no obvious reason, while at many other stations no help is ever available. Many operators now offer a shorter period of notice than 24 hours, some offer guaranteed turn-up-and-go for their own services and stations, and all operators have to assist un-booked passengers as quickly as possible, but disabled people rightly ask why their opportunities for immediate travel are so hampered ?