I recently travelled via train to visit family for Christmas, an experience with which I’m sure many people are familiar. I bought my return ticket from a busy station on Christmas Eve, and in the rush to get the train, I was mistakenly sold the wrong ticket, given that I was planning on returning to London at peak time. On my attempted return to London, I can describe my experience in one way: despite an honest mistake, I was treated like a criminal. This episode made me recall numerous other occasions where I have seen and heard of other travellers with similar tales. I think you’ll agree this is a pretty awful experience.
Does it have to be this way?

Of course, we can understand why train or bus companies haven’t paid too much attention to customer experience in the past. The cynical amongst you would say that they don’t need to – for many, public transport is the only means of getting from A to B and this monopoly means that customers can be treated however the transport company wants.
But all forms of public transport need to pay increasing attention to the experience that they are providing their customers. Last year, we saw an example with Southern Rail which faces fines of up to £500,000 per year if customer satisfaction does not improve. Criteria to be measured covers a range of factors including cleanliness, staff attitude, and information/communication during the journey.
Furthermore, the government seems keen to increase competition where possible – for example allowing successful train companies to open new routes. Most importantly are government aspirations of reducing carbon emissions and increasing public transport use over air travel. For the government, if this is a realistic ambition, they need to start thinking about ensuring that franchisees are improving the experience of travelling via public transport.
It’s true that experiences have improved a long way since the days of soggy British Rail sandwiches and reliable lateness, as immortalised by Reginald Perrin. Reliability and punctuality – by far the two basic needs on which public transport must at least achieve parity with roads and air travel – are improving. With significant investment planned (for example the new high speed rail link to Birmingham and Crossrail), this should continue to get better. But taking the example set by Switzerland, where journeys often span several forms of public transport, each as reliable as each other, there’s much more to be done in order to ensure that public transport in the UK regains some credibility with the public.
There is also the significant issue of value for money, and clearly this is also something which is acutely relevant given the current state of the economy. But, charged as it is with politics, I’m going to look past this, into other areas where transport companies may need to think a little more. There are four main areas.

  • Firstly, communication is fundamental. Ensuring that customers are well informed about their journey as well as any disruptions is vital and so often done badly. It’s not an easy job, but it would be great to see more companies adopting more innovative means of communication. iPhone Applications and text updates are starting to be used, although simply ensuring that the loudspeakers at stations are working would be helpful start!
  • Secondly, as identified already, the experience projected by staff is crucial. Interactions with staff are less and less frequent, but therefore all the more important to get right. As my example at the start of this article demonstrates, being treated with some understanding would have made a significant difference to the way I view public transport in the future.
  • Positioning is also an interesting point. Research shows that the Eurostar now has an 85% market share of direct trips to and from London. However, for trips requiring a transfer, this drops to 5%. This is instructive – some firms (e.g. Virgin) have invested a lot in portraying themselves as the way to travel for business, but if you have to change trains it loses much of its appeal. Long distance rail travel may need to think carefully about how it positions itself as the simplest way for business travel.
  • Finally, public transport providers should be using segmentation and customer journeys to think about better ways to travel. For example, Chiltern Railways is currently trialling text-tickets to beat the queues; bundling tickets to sports events with transport and from the location is another idea.

A couple of developments are interesting. We recently saw the East Cost Line re-nationalised, which will bring it directly in competition with private sector firms on a similar stretch of rail. Grand Central trains from London to Sunderland are managed and largely manned by GNER refugees who fled from National Express. With their Art Deco panels and Marilyn Monroe portraits, their website is filled with references to great experiences, simplicity, and ease of understanding. A comparison of how these two ventures progress will provide valuable fuel to the debates as to how the rail franchise system needs to be reformed.
As we enter a new decade, it will be interesting to see how public transport develops its approach to the customer. It seems to me that, with a little bit of refined thinking, we could all be just a little bit happier when we travel.