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When it comes to passenger engagement, trains are being left behind

Niall BakerOver the past week I’ve had the opportunity to attend both the Passenger Focus’ event Passenger Power and the European Bus Operators Forum.  Both were interesting and it was great to hear how rail and bus operators are taking a keener interest in what their customers have to say.

Operators are seeing real ROI from engaging with customers – listening to customers’ needs and wants has helped operators make improvements to their services that have led to passenger and revenue growth.  We heard great examples of how Arriva and Reading Buses have listened to customers and focused on getting the detail right to deliver outstanding services for passengers.  First Group and Go-Ahead also demonstrated how well-planned partnerships with stakeholders can deliver excellent services.  In particular there’s a real energy and enthusiasm among bus operators to deliver customer and stakeholder-driven solutions to improve services and generate growth.

With rail operators however the voice of the customer appears to be more distant, particularly relating to franchising decisions crucial for the delivery of future services.  Passenger Focus’ own research shows that a lack of understanding and trust among passengers in the whole franchising process.

Without a doubt the rail industry can learn from other sectors on how to better engage with customers and other stakeholders.  As one audience member at ‘Passenger Power’ noted, many commuters are better engaged by their local supermarket, yet spend more in a year on season tickets than they do on groceries and have little knowledge of who runs their local rail service or what they stand for.  A representative from the operator side also admitted that Train Operating Companies (TOCs) don’t know their customers as well as other service providers and this makes engaging passengers all the more difficult.

While there was clear passion to improve the situation no-one said they would proactively take on responsibility for including passenger feedback in future franchising work, so it’s hard to see how and when this will happen.  This may be evidence of the impact of different degrees of competition in the market – bus operators work in a highly competitive environment fighting for passengers along the same routes, while TOCs win a franchise for well over a decade and have an effective monopoly on passengers.

In such an environment TOCs are perhaps less motivated to react to passenger needs, but that doesn’t mean customer feedback isn’t important.  TOCs should remain focused on the competition from other modes, particularly car, and anticipate the threat from competing operators as franchising deals come close to expiry. Bus operators clearly drive the customer engagement process, supported by organisations such as Bus Users UK, and perhaps this is a lesson for the rail sector.

One of the stumbling blocks cited several times during ‘Passenger Power’ was ‘how do we get passenger feedback’?  There’s often the excuse ‘passengers have busy lives and don’t want to be bothered with surveys about franchising after taking a journey’.  Frankly this is hogwash.  Really innovative research companies use online apps like e-luminate, which allow passengers to feedback responses real-time, on the move (or not).  Customers can be reached easily through targeted market research, the challenge is to ask the right questions so feedback is meaningful, ensuring the industry can make decisions that genuinely improve the passenger experience and stimulate revenue growth.

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