Rail industry fails the PR test

There is something deeply perverse about the rail industry. While in a recession when customer numbers are falling, most companies would try to attract more users by, for example, reducing the price of the product or improving it in various ways.

The train operators seem to be doing the opposite, making train travel less pleasant in various ways. First, and most obviously, they are increasing non-regulated fares by amounts well above inflation and there are already predictions that since regulated fares will go down by 0.4 per cent in January, other fares will rise by large amounts to compensate. As an aside, it is extraordinary that far from responding to this enforced reduction by issuing a press release celebrating cheaper prices for its customers, the news was greeted by the Association of Train Operating Companies with total silence, thereby losing a marketing opportunity.

At a time when many people are in difficult economic circumstances, and the growth in passengers has come to a halt, some train operators, have surreptitiously cut back on the number of cheaper tickets while others have put up fares twice this year. Without even raising the wider issue as to whether increasing the cost of train travel makes sense in terms of the environment let alone UK plc, the train operators seem to be sacrificing their long term interests in order to make up shortfalls in their bottom lines.

Then there’s the question of barriers. Various operators, National Express and Stagecoach in particular, encouraged by the Department are installing barriers willy-nilly at stations around the country. There have been particularly fierce opposition at York, where they would put out of use a direct connection with the Museum installed only a few years ago but for the moment planning permission has been refused, and Sheffield, where the route through the station is used by local people. While barriers have a role to play in busy suburban stations, they are a major impediment to easy access to the platforms for long distance travellers with luggage and are deeply unpopular. Lord Adonis, the transport secretary, supports their efforts even though their argument that barriers boost revenue is disputed by several experts in the field.

Another aspect of the ‘customer interface’, as the marketing people call it, is also becoming harder: buying tickets. Ticket offices are closing to be replaced by machines which, while the technology is improving, still leave a lot to be desired particularly as the pricing system is so complicated that one needs advice on what to purchase. Train operator websites are, too, among the least user friendly that I have encountered. Partly this is a result of the complexity of the ticketing system, but also of poor design. The National Express website is specially difficult to navigate. Not only did it suggest to me tickets costing between £25 and £288 for a trip for three people to York,  but it was only when I clicked on that ‘offer’ that I could then investigate the alternatives properly. (Why not just offer the cheapest alternative for each train?)

Then, most irritatingly, there is the question of announcements. Given that train travel is relatively expensive, often somewhat inconvenient and has constant competition from other modes of travel, surely the aim must be to provide an environment that is as pleasant and comfortable as possible. Yet, some operators seem to think that their ‘customers’ need a constant bombardment of repetitive, banal and at times downright stupid announcements that infantilise their listeners.

My personal bugbear is the safety announcement, suggesting passengers read the notices which are not only unfathomable but make train travel (one passenger death in seven years) seem far more dangerous than it is. At stations, too, the level of noise pollution has become almost intolerable, especially with the automated ones about ‘unattended baggage’ adding to warnings about feeding pigeons or slippery floors (this on a hot June day in Hull). Of course, as any psychologist will know, people will simply ignore such a constant level of background noise and thus any important messages may well get lost in the cacophony

The worst offender is South West Trains, where not only is there the full panoply of automated announcements but then the guards take it upon themselves to repeat much of what has already been said. On a trip from Poole to London, there must have been a dozen warnings about moving into the right carriage to exit at certain stations, and twice as many about ‘personal belongings’. The company replied to a recent complaint from the Tory MP David Willetts that it was only following EU rules about disability and other legislation.

This appears to be either mistaken or an over rigorous interpretation of the rules, as some other companies are much more restrained in the number of announcements. Travelling recently on Southern, operating next door to SWT, there was a minimal announcement about the next station (not ‘station stop’, a ridiculous tautology) as we left and approached each station, and that was about it. Nothing about taking ‘all’ your personal belongings – as if one travelled with one’s lifetime of possessions or about ‘for your own personal safety, read the safety notice’ or about travelling with the wrong ticket, slippery platforms or pigeon droppings.

Overall, there is a lack of thinking about what the nature of the ‘product’ of train travel or any consideration of what is likely to retain existing customers and attract new ones. The train operators have basked in the luxury of increasing passenger numbers, stimulated by a variety of external factors, for over a decade but in these harder times they should be giving more thought to making train travel a pleasant experience.

  • guzzibasher

    Spot on about excessive announcements – thank goodness for my MP3 player, blots out all those tedious phone conversations too! However, is ‘station stop’ a tautology? The next stop may not be at a station (just, say, a red signal) and the next station may not be one the train stops at. So the next station stop is the next actual station that the train does stop at.

  • Peter

    I suggest the reason for barriers is nothing to do with revenue protection.

    Rather, once the national identity card system has been brought into use, gate lines will be used to create a record of where people have been travelling.

    One imagines that initially cameras aligned with the gates will digitally scan travellers’ faces. This will then be fed into the relevant database.

    Later on, if carrying ID cards becomes compulsory, or people are made to have RFID implants, RFID readers could be used.


  • “Why not just offer the cheapest alternative for each train?”

    Because the £25 ticket is only valid on that specific train, whereas the £288 ticket is valid on any train at any time. It’s absolutely right that it offers both.

    (the annoying thing that some ticket websites used to do, is advertising different Advance tickets *with identical T&Cs* at different prices for the same train. AIUI this has now stopped…)

  • The Thin Controller

    Yes, and it has finally dawned on the airports that they need to improve their service offiering. If they get it right at the same time as the rail industry is not getting it right, the rail industry will lose more of their long-distance demand.

    For example, one of the major bugbears of flying is checking-in. i have seen (and used) a system overseas in which the check-in kiosks which are now quite common at airports, also print a luggage label. You put that on the luggage, then put the luggage on a conveyor belt – voila! that’s you checked in, and not (generally) having to worry about your luggage. Even security is tolerable these days.

  • Dan

    Article here (from Grauniad) re the new First Greyhound coach service makes the point that 1st make much of the leg room on the coaches:

    “FirstGroup, Britain’s largest bus and rail operator, bought Greyhound in 2007. Now it has brought the brand here. The company is intending to provide quick…and comfortable trips. It is proud of its legroom, leather seats, Wi-Fi access and plug sockets.”

    So it makes you wonder why First don’t seem to think leg room is very important on their trains? Standard Class in FGW’s refurbed IC 125s anyone? it might even make a road coach look an attractive alternative….

  • Dan

    Parking would seem to be another area of ‘customer service’ where the rail industry can be user friendly…

    I’ve got mixed views on parking charges (as I can walk to my station) – and I know that if they are cheaper than other city centre car parks non rail users simply fill them up. However I do recall my dad (back in the late 1970s / early 80s) calculating that the parking charge from his local station tipped the balance to the point where it was thus not sensible price wise to take the train to his out of town (but rail connected) workplace – interestingly thus losing BR Southern Region both the fares income AND the parking income!

    From today:

    A First GW spokesperson…: “We have been working with local authorities to make sure our prices remain less than town and city centre car parks. So for example, if you were to park your car at Reading Station for nine hours you would pay £18.40, which is £1.60 cheaper than other car parks nearby, where you would pay at least £20.”

    That starts to sound a bit like a cartel arrangement to me. Maybe our competition authorities (who have admittedly never seemed to understand the issues at stake in terms of transport competition) will take an interest….

  • Keith

    Referring to Dan’s first point, I do hope there is no significance in the fact that bus companies that also have rail franchises are seeking to make bus travel more competitive with rail. One wonders how desirable it is from a public policy perspective to have companies whose main interests are the running of road-based transport operating rail franchises. Perhaps that links also to Dan’s second post.