Rail passengers – satisfaction before lockdown, and where next?

02 July 2020

Today we published the Spring 2020 rail passenger satisfaction results. The National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) is a major piece of research that tracks passengers’ satisfaction with about 40 different aspects of a rail journey. It’s been running for over 20 years now, is used to set targets in many franchise agreements/contracts and is recognised as an ‘official statistic’ by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

We would normally be shouting loudly about the improvements in overall satisfaction for Great Northern (+9 percentage points), Grand Central (+6), and ScotRail (+5), and about the decline for Avanti West Coast (-7), TransPennine Express (-5), West Midlands Trains (-5) and South Western Railway (-4).

But needless to say this year coronavirus has had an impact. We had to stop fieldwork early in mid-March so we only reached about three-quarters of the usual numbers (about 19,850 people). Since then we have seen a complete change in the railway. Government advice not to use public transport, concerns over social distancing and limits to the number of people who can be carried on trains have changed passenger expectations and aspirations. Surveys pre-coronavirus risk reporting on ‘old world’ issues.

However, there is much in the results that still remains valid and relevant today. We can still see, for instance, the importance of punctuality – it continues to have the biggest impact on overall satisfaction.

Some train companies were having real problems with punctuality earlier in the year and this is reflected in some significant drops in satisfaction with punctuality:

  • West Midlands Trains down 16 percentage points to 64 per cent
  • Northern, down 10 percentage points to 63 per cent
  • TransPennine Express down nine percentage points to 56 per cent
  • Avanti West Coast down nine percentage points to 79 per cent
  • East Midlands Railway down nine percentage points to 73 per cent.

Only one operator recorded a statistically significant increase, Grand Central (+10 percentage points to 92 per cent).

In the immediate aftermath of lockdown, train punctuality has soared – we’re seeing punctuality hit 95+ per cent of trains on time some days. Running fewer trains has allowed for a much more robust and reliable timetable. To some extent train companies have been able to take a long, hard look at performance. As we begin to return to full timetables is there a danger that we reintroduce some of the old problems and make performance ‘fragile’ again, or do we look at trading some capacity for greater reliability? Not an easy decision but one worth exploring.

Pre-virus we knew that how the railway managed delays had the biggest single impact on levels of dissatisfaction – with the provision of information being a core part of this. Latest result show continued problems in managing delay with some statistically significant drops:

  • Chiltern Railways down 17 percentage points to 40 per cent satisfied
  • Avanti West Coast down 13 percentage points to 56 per cent
  • TransPennine Express down 11 percentage points to 38 per cent.

No operator recorded a statistically significant increase in satisfaction for this factor.

Managing delays will be even more important as we come out of lockdown. It won’t be possible for passengers to just cram onto the next service as before – the need for social distancing and to avoid overcrowding means even more emphasis on this issue. The demand for accurate and timely information during disruption is only going to increase.

On stations, we are pleased to see an increase in satisfaction with toilet facilities (up 6 percentage points nationally) to 52 per cent. Again, as we come out of lockdown the need for passengers to have confidence in the availability and cleanliness of toilets has probably never been higher.

So, even though this year’s NRPS results are a bit more low profile than usual, there’s still much in there that’s relevant and useful. You can see the main report here. Anyone who’s keen to dive into the data in all its glory can take a look at our data hub.

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