Why is the UK lacking in passenger experience?

Posted: 11 May 2017 | | 5 comments

Intelligent Transport’s regular blogger, Graham Ellis compares using public transport in Europe to the UK and asks why the latter seems to be lacking when it comes to passenger experience?

Passenger experience is very important. If current and potential passengers do not believe that you care about them then they will be reluctant to travel with you or to sample any special offers you may have.

Travelling in Europe

As a user of different transport modes across Europe, I am always interested in how companies strive to make my journey simple and easy. This is particularly important when you do as much travelling across Europe as I do. For example, I have just been notified that I need to be in Malmo in Sweden for a meeting, so how do I get there?

I am advised that it is best to fly into Copenhagen and then get a train to Malmo; a journey of around 12 minutes across the Oresund Bridge, made famous by the BBC television series The Bridge. So, as per usual, I have been on the internet to check times/prices etc. from the airport in Denmark to Malmo in Sweden. I can find train times but not actual fares for the journey, which isn’t overly useful. Apparently I can buy a ticket at the airport – not sure yet where from but at least I can buy one. This is an area of customer service the operator seems to have missed.

passenger experience

Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden

Now, I am arriving in Copenhagen around lunchtime on the day prior to the meeting, so I plan to go from the airport and into the city centre so I can see some sights. I have downloaded a city guide and visited the website of the local public transport operator and I know from the website that I can purchase a 24-hour ticket for use in the area that I want to visit for the princely sum of 80 Danish Kroner [DKK] (about £10). Single trip tickets would cost 36 DKK each way or 72 DKK for just two trips, so the 24-hour ticket offers better value for money.

Passenger experience in the UK

passenger experience

Now, compare this passenger experience with the UK. I have just booked a ticket to London to arrive at around 9am for the cost of £40.40 with a return the following day also at £40.40; a total of £80.80 for a sub-two-hour journey of around 90 miles.

Compare that with the Spanish state railway that charges me around €30 for a 400 mile, four-hour round trip, with reserved seats on a clean train.

I have also just tried to top-up the two Oyster cards that we use for travel in London, and what I found is that the system Transport for London (TfL) uses is so antiquated that I have to top up each oyster card separately as the system cannot handle more than one transaction; even though both cards are registered to a single account. The operator on the phone was very helpful and apologetic that I was unable to top-up both cards in one single operation but he would not have had to tell me that if the system was actually customer-friendly.

Transport for London

Luckily, or more likely unluckily for TfL, I have a meeting at TfL’s headquarters in London this Friday morning when I can raise this as a lack of customer service directly with them. One has to wonder if London can continue to operate such an inflexible service when the technology is so much more advanced, allowing passengers from across the world to utilise smartphone technology to travel.

But is customer service just about access to ticketing information? I don’t think so, it is about the whole customer experience; how easy is it to buy tickets, get travel information, get a seat and access on-board catering etc. It seems to me that the passenger has been forgotten in some cases and as reported in my recent blog on sister magazine, European Railway Review, we need to see what happens with the new franchises that are being issued. I am watching the South West Trains franchise very carefully as it is my local operator and I want to see better pricing, increased seating in clean and well-maintained trains with good on-board Wi-Fi that isfree to use and doesn’t keep dropping out, along with a decent mobile signal all along the line from Southampton to London.

Travelling by bus

So, that is the view of the rail side of the equation but what about passenger experience on bus services? Well I think that they are further ahead of their fixed link cousins. They have embraced differential pricing, use of technology to keep passengers informed and trained staff in customer care. They have also used a lot of data to make sure that they are running the right services in the right areas at the right time, but whether that will continue under the Buses Bill is anyone’s guess. Manchester are likely to try and take bus control back under political control but, when I worked there, we were losing passengers at an increasing rate even though we were spending huge amounts of money.

The current system seems fine to me: utilising commercial operators to run services that they can make money on and the local authority then designating those routes/journeys they want covered socially and paying for them. I suspect that what we will see is that the politicians will try to mirror London with tendering but will not actually be able to afford that model and we will see passengers leaving in droves. I hope that I am wrong but only time will tell.

5 responses to “Why is the UK lacking in passenger experience?”

  1. Nick L says:

    Regarding Oyster surely it is the author that is antiquated? It must be better customer experience that you don’t have to buy a travel ticket at all but can just use your contactless bank card, still get the best fare and be billed at the end of the day. (Obviously some issues with foreign issue cards and currency transaction fees but that is another discussion)

  2. Ian McAllister says:

    Interesting article. It seems that Graham was able to get more detailed information and book a train ticket in the UK than in Scandinavia. He doesn’t appear to have been told that he has no need to top up his Oyster cards to travel in London if he has contactless credit or debit cards, while much detailed travel information is available (and in some UK areas, buy tickets) on smartphone, through various apps and Traveline.

  3. Steve Stradling says:

    Hi Graham,
    When making a journey people expend physical, mental and emotional effort. Our research in transport psychology (I could e-mail you papers) suggested that the ideal passenger experience involves a ‘Goldilocks’ amout of each: neither too much (overload) nor too little (boredom) of each, but ‘just right’, the desired amout varying from person to person and from time to time.

    Physical effort when travelling is used for maintaining body posture in walking, waiting or carrying. Comfortable seats will reduce the amount of such effort expended. Negotiating an awkward interchange while burdened with infants and baggage will increase it.

    Cognitive effort is needed to collect and process information before and during a journey. Route familiarity will reduce the amount of cognitive effort needed. Habitual journeys typically impose a lower cognitive load, which is part of the reason why forming travel habits is attractive. If the journey needs constant monitoring of progress and the seeking out or interpretation of information this will tend to increase cognitive load.

    Nervous energy is expended on worry about whether the journey will be successfully and safely accomplished. Uncertainty about connection and arrival – “I don’t enjoy it. I’m in a rush and worry [whether] the bus will be on time, to get [me] to work” or personal vulnerability – “I wouldn’t like to be there after dark – the bus station has a reputation” will tend to increase the amount of emotional spend on a journey.

    The notion of service reliability always scores highly on passenger surveys. Reliability enables travelers to meet their travel plans and obligations, they can psychologically rely on it, whereas an unreliable transport service entails:
    uncertainty and worry, and thus additional affective effort,
    making remedial plans, entailing additional mental effort, and
    undertaking remedial actions, requiring additional physical effort.

    The kind of insufficient information you cite causes uncertainty. Uncertainty brings anxiety. People try to avoid anxiety-producing situations which may lead them to abandon travel plans. Transport system (and especially interchange) designers should seek to reduce uncertainty in order to improve the passenger experience.

    Best regards and keep up ther blogging!

  4. Steve Ward says:

    Interesting comparisons. However, had the author travelled to any part of the UK other than London, which has a unique public transport system, he would have found a far less integrated, more inscrutable public transport system – particularly on things like rail fares and bus. I don’t think this is particularly surprising, the fundamental issue is that UK taxpayers wish to see lower expenditure and subsidy go to public transport than elsewhere in Europe, and the expenditure that does happen goes towards a poorly integrated commercial market over which the state – local and national – has chosen to exercise very little control.

  5. Bertil Hylén says:

    Copenhagen Airport CPH has train connections to almost all of Denmark and southern Sweden as far as Göteborg and Kalmar, so-called Öresundståg. There are also a few trains to Stockholm. The problem is customer information – as usual with PT. When you have booked a flight you get proposals for car hire and hotels but almost never info about PT. Ground transport to/from Airports is, I believe, a greater environmental problem than the flights themselves. This is a missed opportunity for PT! But – if you get on to airport sites you may find PT info, sometimes rather good info. This is an area where the EU, with its ambitions for seamless transport, should do more. UITP should be more active as well together with CER and Airports.

    Bertil Hylén, Solna, Sweden (good bus service to ARN)

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