First Great Western is maintaining its silence on the position of its operations director in the face of a survey showing it is one of the worst performing companies for customer satisfaction.
The rail operator ranked joint third from bottom on the list, scoring a 43 per cent rating, compared to 67 per cent for Virgin Trains, which topped the table.
Kevin Gale, head of passenger safety and punctuality, is said to be on gardening leave but the company has refused to comment.
Other operators which scored a low rating included First Capital Connect with 40 per cent, Greater Anglia with 42 per cent and South Eastern with 43 per cent.
The Which? survey followed last month’s inflation-busting fare rises and quoted passengers complaining about steep prices, delays and dirty trains.
The magazine’s executive director Richard Lloyd said: “With 1.5bn train journeys made every year and eight of the 17 UK rail franchises up for grabs in the next two years, customer service should be top of the agenda for every train operating company.
“It is good to see some are performing well on service, but passengers clearly feel others need to do better. Passengers tell us they are fed up with trains that are delayed, overcrowded and dirty.
“This is especially disappointing as many commuters can’t shop around or change the company they travel with.
“Train companies need to play fair with their customers, especially when they are being asked to pay more for their journeys.”
However, the survey also found a fifth of rail passengers feel services are improving.
Responses from 7,500 regular train users placed Virgin, which operates the West Coast Main Line, at the top of the list.
First Great Western’s poor rating follows uncertainty about Mr Gale’s position at the company, which first arose last month.
He did not join other executives for a train journey to mark the launch of the £45m project to redouble the line between Swindon and Kemble on January 11 and declined to comment when approached by a reporter at his home near Bristol.
A spokesman for the firm refused to comment on the speculation surrounding the rail industry veteran.
He said: “I’ve got no idea where he is. As far as I’m concerned he’s on holiday. Our position has not changed since you last spoke to us.”
The company also released a statement saying: “We will be looking very carefully at the detail of the Which? report. Customer satisfaction is very important to us.
“Independent watchdog Passenger Focus surveys up to eight times as many people twice a year.
“This survey shows 82 per cent of our passengers are satisfied, up five five per cent from the start of the franchise in 2006.”
But First Great Western is not to blame, according to a passenger group.
TravelWatch said the operator was unable to take action against other companies which have not been delivering because of the Government’s botched awarding of the franchise for the Great Western mainline, which was eventually handed to Virgin Trains.
Gordon Edwards, director of the group’s south west branch, said: “In a sense I’m not surprised as with the massive engineering works taking place in Reading. It’s hard to catch a train which goes through Reading and comes out the other side on time, and that frustrates regular passengers.
“In a way, FGW is not comparable to other operators, as they are part of a more nebulous situation, which is the mess made by the Government over the award of the franchise for the Great Western mainline.
“The award meant the operators had to be on their best behaviour and couldn’t get stroppy with people who weren’t delivering. For once I think the train operator is relatively guilt-free, as its voice has been put on mute while darker forces have been at work.”