The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: it was not fault for TfL to decide not to carry out engineering works to reduce noise from London Underground trains passing close to Ms X’s home because the relevant criteria were not met. But there was poor customer service when it responded to her emails and calls.
- Ms X complains that Transport for London (TfL):
- failed to take action to reduce noise levels from underground trains on a section of track that passes close to her home;
- staff did not keep promises to return her calls within agreed timescales and she had to keep chasing up responses.
- Ms X says the noise is constant and it has increased since December 2016. She can hear it in every room and it disturbs her sleep.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have spoken to Ms X and considered the evidence she sent me. I made enquiries to TfL and considered its response and supporting evidence.
- Ms X and TfL both took the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their responses before making a final decision.
What I found
- There are no legal limits on the amount of noise or vibration that can be emitted from trains operating on railways. TfL says it will use its best endeavours to minimise disturbance and keep noise and vibration to a minimum while it carries out its statutory functions.
- TfL has published a leaflet for the public about noise and vibration from public transport services. It says Underground trains can cause ground-borne noise or vibration in properties close to the line. This may be a rumble, or a more impulsive noise if a train crosses a joint or other discontinuities in the rail (such as a set of points). The condition of the track may also affect the level of noise or vibration. The rail can become corrugated as it gets rougher with age. These irregularities on the surface of the rail often contribute to increased levels. Maintenance is therefore undertaken to maintain the rail head.
- When it replied to my enquiries, TfL explained that it prioritises work at sites where the noise exceeds 42 decibels and it has received five or more complaints. It says it has no written documents to explain how it assesses the relative priority of engineering works.
- TfL’s leaflet says someone should contact TfL’s Customer Service centre if they are affected by noise. It guarantees a personal response and an effective and speedy investigation.
The key facts
- Ms X lives in a three-storey house close to a sub-surface London Underground line. She has lived in the house for more than forty years. She says she can hear noise from the Underground trains in every room. She describes it as a loud rumbling noise which is very intrusive. There is no vibration.
- Ms X says she gets no respite. She counted 37 trains passing in one hour. Since the Night Tube was introduced in November 2016, trains run all through the night at weekends. She first contacted Transport for London to complain about the noise in January 2017.
- Following Ms X’s complaint, TfL arranged for an engineer to record noise measurements in Ms X’s home. He visited on 15 February 2017 and set up the equipment in the ground floor living room. The background noise level was 27 decibels. The mean decibel level was 35 on the northbound track 36 on the southbound track.
- On 24 February a TfL engineer measured the roughness of the rails on the northbound and southbound sections of track. He said the level of roughness on the sections of track close to Ms X’s property were not excessive. But he found higher levels of roughness further along the track which may cause ground-borne noise. There was a corrugated rail on this section of track.
- Ms X contacted TfL on 2 March and 26 March to ask about the engineer’s findings. The engineer completed his report until 27 March. TfL sent a copy to Ms X on 5 April. A Customer Services adviser told Ms X it may take the engineers one to two weeks to devise a plan to reduce the noise levels. He said the noise problems on this underground line were proving to be some of the most complex and time-consuming to rectify. He said he would raise the issue at a meeting with engineers on 6 April and provide Ms X with a further update.
- Ms X says she made six telephone calls to TfL’s Customer Services team in April and May 2017. Each time she was told someone would call her back but she heard nothing further. She says she is appalled by the poor customer service.
- A Customer Services adviser gave Ms X a further update on 5 May. He said the engineers were still investigating the issue and searching for a solution. He said the rails could not be grinded (to reduce the roughness) for technical reasons. He said replacing the rails may be the only viable remedy. He asked Ms X to bear with TfL while it considered the options.
- On 7 June a Customer Services Adviser called Ms X to tell her the engineers had decided the noise levels were acceptable and no works would be done. The available funds would be spent at sites where the noise levels were higher. Ms X contacted TfL to ask for noise measurements to be taken again because the noise was loud and constant. She sent a further email on 29 June to chase a response.
- On 30 June a Customer Services Adviser told Ms X he had met engineers who confirmed that they had to prioritise work on sections of the Underground network with the highest noise levels and the largest volume of complaints. Ms X was not satisfied with this response and so she complained to the Ombudsman.
- Ms X also raised her concerns with her MP and a local Councillor who have made enquiries on her behalf.
- On 19 October an engineer returned to Ms X’s home to take further noise measurements. He set up the equipment in the ground floor living room and recorded noise in the early evening for 25 minutes. The mean decibel readings were 35 on the northbound line and 36 on the southbound line. The background noise level was 27 decibels. These results were identical to the noise levels recorded in February 2017.
- TfL did not send Ms X a copy of this report. It sent a copy with its reply to my enquiry letter.
- TfL describes the noise in Ms X’s home as a “low rumble”. It says it is currently giving priority to sites where the noise exceeds 42 decibels and there are five or more complainants. As an example, it sent a report about a noise investigation carried out at properties near a different Underground line where the noise level was up to 45 decibels and there were ten complainants.
- TfL says it has received 12 other complaints about noise on this section of the Underground line. Ms X says many local residents have noticed the increase in noise levels.
- TfL recently carried out a further inspection of the track and it has now reprioritised it for works. It will install shock absorbent fixings to reduce the noise in the spring of 2018.
- TfL says the noise levels did not meet its threshold when Ms X first complained so it could not prioritise remedial works. It has apologised for the delay in responding to Ms X and the failure to return her calls. It says the responsible staff member was dealing with a high workload at the time.
- TfL accepts Ms X is disturbed at home by noise from trains running along the Underground line near her home. She says the intensity of the noise has markedly increased since December 2016.
- TfL must apply some objective criteria to prioritise engineering works to reduce noise and vibration. It is for TfL, and not the Ombudsman, to decide on the appropriate criteria. Two criteria must be met: the noise must exceed 42 decibels and there must be at least five complainants. With limited resources for engineering works, it is not fault for TfL to devise criteria to assess the relative priority of sites.
- The noise levels recorded in Ms X’s home in February and October 2017 did not cross the minimum 42 decibel threshold. The engineer’s recordings did not detect any change in the recorded noise levels between February and October 2017. I appreciate this was a “snapshot” of the noise levels for a limited period on two days. But TfL must make decisions based on the evidence gathered from its noise recordings. For this reason, I do not consider there was fault in the way TfL made the decision not to carry out engineering works at that time.
- TfL has since re-inspected the track and decided to carry out remedial works in the spring of 2018. That should achieve some reduction in noise levels.
- There was fault in the way TfL handled Ms X’s contact with its Customer Services team. It was sometimes slow to respond to her emails and she had to chase them for replies. It did not return her calls despite promising to do so. This was frustrating for Ms X and she did not get a satisfactory service. I am likely to uphold this part of her complaint.
- To remedy the injustice caused by the poor customer service, TfL has agreed to:
- notify Ms X when it has scheduled a date for the engineering work in the spring of 2018; and
- send her a letter of apology within one month for its poor customer service.
- I have completed the investigation and found no evidence of fault on complaint a). Ms X suffered some avoidable upset because of the fault identified in complaint b). TfL has agreed to provide a satisfactory remedy.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman