Why is the UK lacking in passenger experience?
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.
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
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.