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Travel 2020 and the need to listen to passengers

Last week, we exhibited at the Travel 2020 conference where operators, infrastructure and technology suppliers, passenger representatives and a wide range of other stakeholders gathered to explore how technology is driving change in the transport sector. Much of the discussion revolved around the importance of listening to passengers and putting their needs at the centre of future developments.

While this might sound like a statement of the mind-blowingly obvious, most rail commuters at least would recognise immediately that it is still not being taken seriously. It’s exciting hearing a speech on how we might soon be able to swipe a bank card to pay for travel or use an app to book a train and a taxi in one transaction, but if my train doesn’t run on time, that taxi booking is pretty useless!

Operators need to get the basics right first – first and foremost passengers want to be kept informed. I am much more forgiving of a train that is “delayed by 10 minutes” than a train that is “delayed” because at least I can then adapt my plans.

This need for information, important for all passengers, is absolutely crucial for those who are disabled. These passengers may have generally experienced a loss of confidence, and when a journey has been meticulously planned to work around staff and facility availability, being told no more than “This bus is on diversion” can create a level of uncertainty sufficient to deter a repeat journey. It is no wonder that a leading Paralympian recently criticised London’s network as not meeting disabled passengers’ most basic needs.

Thanks to social media, talking to passengers is easier now than ever before, and can be done with far greater immediacy. Many operators are now joining Facebook and Twitter in the realisation that if your customers are going to talk about you anyway, you should at least attempt to join the conversation. However, there is a serious risk of running before you can walk. Twitter communication is geared far more towards broadcasts than conversations – it’s great for informing passengers about a major delay, not so great for thrashing out a customer service dispute. If passengers expect a Twitter account to be manned whenever the trains are running, starting a conversation that you are unable to finish in real-time is probably worse than not starting one at all.

In contrast, mobile technologies are pushing passenger expectations higher and higher in terms of not needing to interact with the operator over the course of their journey – we buy online, we swipe a smart card, we take out the iPhone and block out passenger announcements with music. This ever more distant relationship evidently creates more room for misunderstandings and less room for building trust. Usually, the only time an operator gets to interact with the passenger is when something goes wrong – but if we can’t get an immediate response to “what is happening with my specific train” on Twitter, we are far more likely to moan to other passengers than to the operator.

The idea of using social media to create a direct conversation with the passenger and thereby build trust is flawed, because this trust needs to be already in place for the conversation to even begin. Paradoxically, this trust will only be built by already knowing what passengers want without asking them – in other words, by listening to what passengers say about the operator behind its back. Operators need to get somebody else to ask passengers what they want: the need for market research in the transport sector is greater than ever.

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