In passenger surveys, one of the biggest complaints is over the handling of delays. It is not so much the delay itself that aggravates passengers, but the confused response and, in particular, the lack of up to date information. Indeed, one of the commonest refrains is that ‘there is more information on Twitter than the staff seemed to have’.
I have been rather lucky when it comes to rail travel. Despite probably doing an average of a train ride every week, mostly long distance, I have only once had a mega delay in the past 20 years, caused by a ‘fatality’ on the Great Western. However, on my way to the Cheltenham Literary Festival to give a talk on October 6, I got to Paddington – not having checked my Twitter feed that morning – at lunchtime to find the place in chaos. The delays were the result of ‘signalling problems’ – a daft catch all that does little to enlighten passengers especially as for the most part it is in fact a track circuit failure – which, in fact, were caused by a cable being cut through by Network Rail. This had happened in the very early hours of the morning and yet First great western did not issue any warning about possible disruption until 7am – far too late for many people who would be delayed going to work. According to Passenger Focus, only 17 per cent of delayed passengers hear about the delay before they arrive at the station – in this case, it was partly my fault as I had not checked my Twitter account, but also GW had not sent out much information.
When I got to Paddington, I found that there was one train heading for Reading, a Penzance via Temple Meads service, and as my direct Cheltenham train had been cancelled. I rushed onto it. So did everyone else wanting to get away. It was chaotic and lots of people standing. However, there was plenty of room in the aisles but instead of asking people to move along and ensure as many passengers got away as possible, I heard one of the guards say: ‘We must close the barriers, stop any more getting on’, leaving many people who could have got on the train stranded.
The train eventually left about 20 minutes late, but there were virtually no announcements, and no explanation apart from ‘signalling problems’ . Eventually, one train guard, a woman called Jo, did make an effort and deserves praise. She went up and down the train, and ensured that people in First Class, which had been declassified, could claim compensation. However, there were half a dozen others, clearly connecting with their intended trains or simply going home, including the one making announcements, who just hid in the restaurant car and made no effort to sort out problems for people. Indeed, when I went to ask one of them whether I should change at Swindon or Temple Meads, and was told the later, even though this was a much longer way round. In fact, this was the wrong advice as I found out from talking to my neighbour on the train that Swindon was likely to be the better option, and so it proved.
Luckily, for once in my life I had allowed an extra couple of hours for my journey, wanting to enjoy another event or two at the festival, and so while I got to Cheltenham an hour late, I still made my talk if not the others. However, my fellow panellist at the talk, the railway author Andrew Martin (who writes those jolly Jim Stringer tales), had had less confidence in FGW’s ability to sort out the mess. He had got on the same train at Paddington as me, but when it did not budge for 15 mins and there was no information, he went back home and drove, getting there at about the same time as me.
I know that perturbations are difficult for the industry to handle. But this one had been going on for 12 hours by the time I got to Paddington, but there was no sense that anyone was in charge. I talked to Karen Boswell, the boss of East Coast Trains, about this at the Railfuture conference on November 1 and asked who is put in in charge when such incidents happen. She assured me that there was a procedure to ensure that a senior person took control and managed the incident in every case, but there seemed little sign of this at Paddington that day as demonstrated by the failure to even ensure the basics – such as having lots of on board announcements to clarify the situation and ensuring that people moved down the aisles. If Jo – who apparently has featured in the TV documentaries about FGW – could do work hard to appease passengers, why were not the others instructed to do so by management? I am not blaming them – it is the management that needs to take responsibility.
At the Railfuture conference, Anna Mathews, the Chief Executive of Delta Rail (which is in effect the remnants of the old British Rail Research Department) gave a damning speech about the railways’ failure to deal properly with these situations. In fact, by coincidence, she actually highlighted the October 6 incident as how not to do it and raised an interesting wider issue about passenger surveys.
Matthews said that Delta Rail has analysed tweets about the railway and this research suggests that the public perception is far less positive than the National Passenger Survey (NPS) conducted by Passenger Focus which reports about 82 per cent were satisfied with their journey. Her twitter analysis suggests that the figure is nearer 60 per cent, but there is clearly a bit of bias towards complaining. However, the Which? survey, too, always finds far less high satisfaction rates. The explanation is that the NPS only relates to the journey currently being undertaken while Which? asks more general questions about the perception of the railway. It is, indeed, perhaps those questions which are more valuable and therefore Matthews certainly has a point. There is a real tendency to believe that everything is rosy in the railway garden, whereas there are fundamental failures such as the ability to deal with disruption in a way that leaves people satisfied that at least everything possible was done.
The key aspect, as revealed by Passenger Focus research into the issue, is information. It was quite remarkable that on my train to Reading during the disruption, the truism mentioned in my introduction about passengers knowing more than staff proved correct. We hear of TOCs distributing tablets (the electronic type, not the Valium they might need in a crisis) to staff but this is 2014 for chrissake – surely this should have happened years ago. We live in a digital age.
The rather high number of 14 per cent of passengers had experienced a delay in the previous week and only 34 per cent of those who had been delayed thought that the company handled it well. The overall feeling was of frustration and lack of information. While I don’t agree with a delegate at the Railfuture conference who said if there is a suicide, that should be announced, it is so much better when there is more coherent explanation than just ‘signalling problems’. The explanation does not have to be technical, but it can elaborate on those vague unhelpful descriptions.
Matthews highlighted how it is difficult to get managers in the industry to address such criticisms, She reported how when she has spoken up, ‘I have been personally ostracized’ and related how unfounded criticism of Delta Rail, which provides signalling systems and other IT for the industry, had been spread in the industry despite the fact that the company had repeatedly received awards for being the best supplier to Network Rail. The rail industry needs people like her, prepared to challenge the rosy garden view of the industry which many senior managers seem so desperate to spread in order to protect short term and narrow interests. While being a strong supporter of the industry, she is adamant that unless the railways adapt and keep on innovating, they will not flourish. She should be listened to and not ‘ostracized’
Another railway anomaly
A reader in Dover, Alan Sencircle, has complained to me that SouthEastern offer no advance tickets and, of course, charge premium fares on the HS1 route as required to by government. There is indeed an odd anomaly.
For historic reasons related to these premium fares, SouthEastern offers no discounted advance fares. Therefore Mr Sencircle points out that it costs £40 for an off peak return from Dover, Deal or Sandwich using the Javelin service. Yet the cheapest standard advance single fares from from these towns to both Birmingham and Rugby are priced at £12 each way and there are similar bargains to Manchester – and these fares include Zone 1 on the Underground. Although strictly illegal, it is therefore possible for people to travel to London in that way and never use the rest of the ticket as it would be completely impossible for SouthEastern to check.
Given that GoVia have won, on a management contract basis, the franchise to operate these trains until 2018, Mr Sencircle is pressing the company to start offering the same deal for travellers to London. He points out that Southern, also run by GoVIa, offers very cheap advance fares such as £5 each way between Victoria and Brighton, Worthing or Southampton. I wish him all the best in his endeavours in attempting to make sense of this situation.