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A smarter future for rail customer service

Last week we attended a Passenger Focus event which was convened to discuss their recent research into passenger perspectives on the franchise process.The survey found that most passengers see this process as lacking transparency and only paying lip service to passenger needs – confirming the view I put forward in a New Transit article earlier this year that the rail industry fails to communicate effectively with its passengers and make them feel valued as stakeholders.

At one point during the debate, it was pointed out how effective customer service is for Oyster card holders in comparison: if you lose your card, you simply go to a station or call a number and block the card as quickly and easily as you would for your bank card. You freeze the credit and transfer it to a new card – and in a matter of minutes, you’re off on a new journey after a token payment of £3 for the new card.

As someone who lost both their Oyster card and overground season ticket in the past year, this point really resonated with me as a perfect example of how the rail industry could be providing better customer service. While replacing my Oyster card really was that easy, replacing my season ticket involved the following steps:


  1. Going to my local station to inform them of the loss
  2. Collecting an A4 sized form to report the loss
  3. Returning with a passport sized photo to get a new ID card
  4. Buying a stamp (the last time I posted something was probably several months before) and posting my form
  5. Buying a new weekly ticket, and eventually a new monthly ticket, over the next two and a half months – effectively paying double for my travel over this period
  6. Filling in a second form the operator sent me giving further details of the loss and assuring them I wasn’t a fraudster
  7. emailing the operator – only to get an automated reply saying my query would be dealt with in 10 working days, followed by personal replies saying simply that they were “looking into it”
  8. Phoning the operator repeatedly, and getting variable and evasive responses suggesting that the frontline representatives either didn’t know, or weren’t allowed to tell me, what was happening with my request
  9. Two and a half months later, paying £20 to have my season ticket reissued

I perfectly understand that train operators have a duty to investigate the loss of something as valuable as an annual season ticket, to ensure that they are not being defrauded. However, as many rail passengers will testify, what is frustrating in these situations is the anxiety of not knowing what is happening or when it will be resolved! It does seem that the duty of investigation could be fulfilled more efficiently, and in a way that a. doesn’t make the customer in question feel like their needs come so far below this duty; b. encourages the customer to keep travelling with that operator in the meantime.

The comparative efficiency of travel smartcards, I would argue, benefits the operator as much as the customer. Last year at Travel 2020, we heard how ticket gates are unable to record the entry and exit points of any passenger who is using a season ticket. This means that while TfL can trace exactly who is travelling where, at one time, and deploy resources according to those passenger volumes, overground train operators are left in the dark.

We have recently done some research for one of the leading UK train operators into passenger engagement with smartcards, and it is evident that by linking such a card to the person who bought it, operators get to know the needs of their passengers in terms of both journey patterns and purchasing habits. These are not just altruistic benefits of understanding your customers and making them feel valued – there are plenty of companies who are successfully monetising such information. The bottom line is that for personal and commercial relationships alike, if you feel like someone understands you, you are more likely to spend time and money with them.

Many different sectors can now track where their customers are and what they are doing in increasingly sophisticated detail. Why is it that the very industry whose job is to take people from one place to another doesn’t know where they are?

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2 thoughts on “A smarter future for rail customer service

  1. Hi Louise
    An interesting point you raise on replacement seasons. I think the main problem is not that the train company wont do anything it is the short term nature of the investment in systems. This is going to be the real spoiler for the new Direct Grants (formally called franchise extensions -but that breaches EU law!); they are too short and the following franchises may only be seven years! Where is the ROI in this scenario to invest in expensive smart ticketing systems? Oyster is all very well but what you have now across the country is every local authority and bus operator bringing in their own schemes with no national unity other than ITSO. and with wonderful names from “the best thing since sliced bread” Market Co. What is needed is something like the ‘Smart’ National Concessionary ID card …but there we are sailing very close to National ID card which is clearly a no go area for any politician. :(

    • Hi Ian, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think you are quite right, and this is another unforeseen consequence of the fracturing caused by privatisation. I’m not sure what the answer is either, although at least any national transport smart card would obviously be on an opt-in basis – for me the main objection against national ID cards is their compulsory nature!

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