On 28 June 2022, the Office of Rail and Road (“ORR”) launched a consultation on the future model for the Rail Ombudsman. This follows the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail (the “Plan for Rail”) published in May 2021, which set out that ORR would assume responsibility for sponsoring the Rail Ombudsman from the Rail Delivery Group. 

The full consultation document is available here and the deadline for responses is 5pm on 5 August 2022.

The role of the Rail Ombudsman

The Rail Ombudsman should: 

  • be an independent body that investigates and resolves passenger complaints; 
  • be free to use for passengers, with its decisions being binding on scheme members; and 
  • identify any systemic or recurring issues and provide feedback to its members to improve services and complaints handling in the sector.  

The new Rail Ombudsman Operating Model

ORR is seeking industry stakeholder input on its proposals for a new ombudsman operating model ("OOM").  Key features proposed include:

  • Structure and governance
    • a rail ombudsman service provider will be appointed under a contract with the ORR with an initial term of 5 years (with the option for ORR to extend the contract for a further 5 years); 
    • the Rail Ombudsman will be governed by an independent Board; 
    • a Chief Ombudsman will be appointed to have overall responsibility for individual case decisions; 
    • an Independent Assessor will be appointed to hear any complaints about the scheme provider’s service provision, prepare the annual report to the Board and review the quality of case handling and internal processes; and 
    • the Rail Ombudsman will have two Advisory Panels, one panel of its members and one that is representative of the consumers of its members, each with their own formal terms of reference;
  • Cost control - the Rail Ombudsman will consult stakeholders on its estimated budget each year (which may be subject to ORR approval) and will need to demonstrate that it has robust financial planning and cost control measures in place;
  • Accessibility - the Rail Ombudsman scheme must be accessible to all rail users and accessibility and inclusion should be embedded fully within the OOM;
  • Accreditations - the Rail Ombudsman will need to obtain Ombudsman Association accreditation; 
  • Scheme membership - all rail industry parties will be eligible for membership, with compulsory members currently including: (i) all passenger-carrying train operators, (ii) Network Rail (or future equivalent, such as Great British Railways), and (iii) other station operators;
  • Rail Ombudsman scheme rules - the Rail Ombudsman will develop scheme rules in conjunction with industry stakeholders, which will then be approved by ORR (with any subsequent changes being subject to consultation and ORR approval);
  • Maximum Award - the current limit of  £2,500 will be maintained but kept under review;
  • Performance - reporting on performance will be required and regular stakeholder surveys undertaken; and 
  • Transparency - the Rail Ombudsman will be required to meet minimum standards of transparency by publishing a suite of information and data on its governance, operations, and performance.

Proposals for an amended licence condition

In addition to seeking views on its draft OOM, ORR is also inviting input on a modification to the complaints handling licence condition. This would require passenger and station licence holders to join a new ORR-procured rail ADR scheme, with an obligation to contribute towards the costs of that scheme.

The consultation also seeks views on the impact of having two rail ADR schemes (the current RDG-procured scheme and the new ORR-procured scheme) running simultaneously for a short transition period. 

Next steps

  • The consultation closes on 5 August 2022. 
  • ORR will then publish its decision and, if appropriate, proceed with the statutory licence. modification process to mandate that licence holders join the ORR-procured ADR scheme. This will be subject to further consultation. 
  • A competitive tendering procedure will commence to appoint a service provider to act as the Rail Ombudsman, with ORR’s ambition being that this appointment is made in early 2023.

This consultation marks another step in the implementation of the commitments outlined in the Plan for Rail, and a further opportunity for rail industry stakeholders to participate in dialogue on the proposals to re-shape the rail sector.