The regional director of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), a UK-based union representing train companies, is facing criticism from industry, members of the public and MPs after praising British railways as “the envy of Europe”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live earlier this week, RDG’s Robert Nisbet said that other European Union countries can “only dream” of having the same punctuality and efficiency as the UK and defended the country’s railway system despite admitting that passengers have faced “frankly appalling” levels of service in the past few months.
Some 423 trains were cancelled and many others delayed in the aftermath of a major timetable overhaul by rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway in May, which led to major disruption in services across the country.
However, in an interview on Monday, Nisbet said: “We’re a hugely successful railway in many ways much more so than many countries in Western Europe who would only dream about having our kind of performance and punctuality records. A lot of that is because of the public-private partnership.
“A lot of us get on those gleaming fast trains that go from city to city in France and Spain and Italy but a lot of their suburban commuter lines are terribly inefficient. They have suffered for years with a lack of investment.”
His comments triggered a string of angry reactions from affected passengers, who took to social media to criticise him, labelling his opinions as “out of touch”.
Nisbet issued an apology through The Telegraph saying: “I am sorry as clearly my comments do not reflect the recent experience of some of our customers as I fully understand how frustrating recent disruption in parts of the country has been for people.”
RDG added that Nisbet’s comments were centred on a passenger satisfaction survey by the European Commission in 2013 and did not take into consideration the recent disruption or strikes currently hitting Southern Rail. The content of the interview is also in stark contrast with figures from the National Rail Passenger Survey published in January, which revealed two thirds of passengers across the UK rail network are unhappy with the services provided.
Passenger watchdog Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith commented: “If you’re waiting for a cancelled or late train comments like this are no help whatsoever. You have paid for the service promised through the timetable and it should be delivered.
“At the moment, on parts of the network customers are having a very tough time. The timetable chaos has seen passengers’ lives turned upside down. I don’t think his comments are useful.”
A number of MPs also hit out at Nisbet’s comment. Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden Bim Afolami said: “You would have to be on a different planet to think that the current performance of our railways is anything like acceptable.
“It is miserable for commuters, students trying to take exams, young mothers racing to pick children up from nursery and school.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May was urged to personally intervene to solve the chaos hitting UK railways, with Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham urging Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to resign.