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UK rail queries may be answered in India

Last updated on: October 15, 2003 15:49 IST

Britain plans to shift the nation's rail enquiries service to India under a secret plan to save up to £10 million, says the Guardian.

According to documents leaked to the Guardian, "train operators intend to educate Indian call centre workers in the eccentricities of Britain's railways. The move could put 1,700 jobs at risk at the existing call centres in Cardiff, Derby, Newcastle and Plymouth."

The story, headlined 'Catching a train to Crewe? Call Bangalore', says Indian staff will need to cope with queries about anything from the availability of smoking carriages on South West Trains to disabled access on the Fort William sleeper and weekend engineering works on the Settle-Carlisle line.

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"They will have to know every fare and promotion on the network, including the difference between a saver, a supersaver, an off-peak saver and a weekender."

An internal memo to the board of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) from the chief executive of National Rail Enquiries, Chris Scoggins, who visited eight call centres in three Indian cities earlier this year, said that they delivered an "excellent quality" service, the paper said. "In two operations the agents had virtually no Indian accent."

Scoggin's memo requests approval to set up a pilot operation in Bangalore, saying the "business case is strong" although "there may well be trade union agitation and negative media coverage regarding jobs."

It also warns that "short-term ridicule and cynicism" may be a problem, and "we should consider this in the context of a significant proportion of calls going offshore, rather than just for the pilot."

Train operators are required to fund a national enquiries service, which also receives public subsidies from the Strategic Rail Authority. British Telecom, which  has a contract to answer many of the calls to the inquiries line,  is pressing for the move offshore, citing research by polling firm NOP suggesting that the public do not mind where their calls are answered.

The research, seen by the Guardian, found that callers were unconcerned by overseas accents as long as they were easy to understand. It adds: "Racial stereotypes play a stronger role in the 35-55 age range but, predominantly, do not cause a barrier."

But a risk assessment drawn up alongside the proposal warns of a number of potential hazards. These include a nuclear war between India and Pakistan - though "very unlikely" - a major power failure or a technical breakdown.

The first call centre to see its work moved to India is likely to be Newcastle, the paper says.

Critics are concerned that foreign staff would find it very difficult to cope with the complexity of inquiries about Britain's labyrinthine railways.

"Our main concern would be a lack of knowledge about the rail network in the United Kingdom. If you call up asking about trains from Peterborough to King's Cross, there's no way they're going to know every stop en route," the Guardian quoted Caroline Jones of the Rail Passengers' Council as saying.