His southern-dwelling friends haven’t heard of  TransPennine Express, but Alex Warner wonders how many northerners are also unaware of it

TransPennine Express is like the M62 Sport, Rugby League – good quality, but at best only on the periphery of the consciousness of us Southern softies. Indeed, in a recent brand survey undertaken by, ahem, yours truly of a sample size of 30 of my reprobate, unwashed friends and foes, none of them had even heard of TransPennine Express.

I was determined, though, to get TransPennine Express into my consciousness with a taster trip from Manchester to Leeds last week. Arriving at Piccadilly, it seemed that its brand presence wasn’t much more penetrative than it is in London where it doesn’t even run. The problem is partly Network Rail’s fault and that’s an issue raised on a recent assignment I’d undertaken for a train operating company whereby they were not unjustifiably adamant about a correlation between the lack of brand presence at their biggest customer touch-point – the Network Rail Managed Stations – and customer satisfaction. There’s too many logos and brands, as well as the anodyne, impartial blue way-finding which might look pristine and non-committal, but adds to the dizzying yet fragmented effect.

Looking round Manchester Piccadilly, it’s a mish-mash of signage and the only awareness customers might have of TransPennine are some DIY engineering works posters near the information booth. There’s a Welcome from Virgin Trains sign near the ticket office, but no warm greeting from TransPennine Express. I requested information from a Virgin employee near the information office regarding TransPennine and he pointed me to these timetables, but started laughing affectionately, in the kind of way in which the media patronises plucky, little non-league teams on FA Cup giant-killing runs. I then asked a Northern member of gateline staff if there is a TransPennine information desk, to which, after much thought, he explains “there used to be, this is it now” – pointing bizarrely at a swanky looking Northern Rail Lounge further down the platform.

It’s difficult to take information on the railway seriously at times, wholesale mumbo-jumbo, out of touch jargon and a house-style, rail-porn lingo of its own, understood only by hardcore, old-school operators. Take the ticket office at Piccadilly, for instance – there’s a sign outside (on a red frame that is held together by yellow sticky tape) that is intended to tell it how it is in terms of the products, services and opening times, but is headed ‘Retail Information’, which is silly as your average customer would see the title and expect to see an enticing list of household name High Street brands that are situated on the station, rather than some old guff that no one ever reads and is just there to satisfy some arcane, regulatory-type cobblers known to insiders as Schedule 17.

The problem is that around the early 1990s, I believe, the loonies took over the nuthouse at British Rail HQ and in a mindset changing mission to make a minority of dinosaur station managers feel they were running a commercial business, it seemed cunning to call them retail managers so that the next generation of Philip Greens and Stuart Roses would be created on Britain’s platforms and concourses. This retail job-title legacy has endured for years, but it’s done Sweet Fanny Adams to transform the station ticket purchasing experience. Meanwhile, how many retail managers has the railway spawned who have then made it big on the High Street? Err, yes, that’s right – no one, though First’s highly talented former rail supremo, Mary Grant, made the move to Phones4U in 2012, before returning to trains 15 months later.

Anyway, I approached my train, but not before the eternal frustration that is the electronic departure board on the concourse which lists destinations in alphabetical order but cannot get them all onto one display. So, you can run onto the station and unless you’re lucky to be on the page that says “London” or be patient to wait until it re-appears again, your first impression might be that the capital is not served from Manchester. I was eventually off onto Platform 2 where a TransPennine Express train pulled in but the conductor was leaning out of the window yelling at customers not to board as this train was not in service, but ours was on its way behind. My frustration was alleviated by the fact that the conductor was a doppelganger of Dave Kaye, former First North Western managing director and First Bus chief operating officer (as well as Rugby League and Union star),  – complete with boyish looks, imposing physique, glint in his eye and cheeky smile that would even win over your mother-in-law.

One minute before departure, our train mercifully pulled in and after the customary frustrating wait whilst customers press the door open buttons and nothing happens, we eventually board, irritated by those unwelcoming, witless ‘Smile you’re on CCTV’ stickers on the doors that are invariably dreamt up by TOC head of security types with their own unique, side-splittingly unfunny take on customer service, invariably gleaned from a previous career working for the Old Bill. There was nothing to giggle about – as soon as we took our seats, an announcement advised that the train reservation system wasn’t working (“but hopefully you’ll find your seats anyway”). We were on our way immediately, though and it transpired that the Dave Kaye double was our conductor and he charged through the aisles with his renowned irrepressible enthusiasm as though he was hurtling headlong towards the opposition’s try line.

The journey is humdrum, so I venture into First Class. The décor is good, swanky tables and stylish light fittings, like something out of a poncey Mayfair restaurant. Unfortunately, the whole ambience is totally undermined by headrests with white paper draped over them and the message ‘Welcome to the Pennine Class 185’ in the cumbersome, yet municipal FirstGroup font. The cheapskate texture of the paper is so thin and tacky it evokes memories of childhood visits to the school toilet cubicles.

The paper, though, isn’t the only thing to give me the bum’s rush here, it’s the thought that anyone working at HQ could think that a way to give instant, warm first impression to premium-paying customers, would be to welcome to the Pennine Class 185. Trainspotters and railway employees aside, what the hell is a ‘Class’ and why ‘185’? It’s not as if a ‘Class 185’ is that alluring as Concorde or a Javelin or Bullet Train. Yeah, ‘Welcome to The Flying Scotsman’ maybe, but ‘the Pennine Class 185’, I mean what was going through their heads?

Whilst wandering through the train, I snaffled a copy of First TransPennine’s mag – Explorer – which is a good destination marketing tool (published thankfully by an external company) and on its cover there’s a photo of two sweet looking lasses holding enticing sweets with the heading “Truly scrumptious – Got a sweet tooth? Check out the very very best sweet shops in your region”. This is a good enticer for pages to come that are ram-cram packed with attractive pictures, images and content aimed at creating trip opportunities capable of inspiring a hermit. The boring bit is the list of products on sale on-board, the usual uninspiring railway, live life on the edge bland menu that adds nothing to the allure of the TransPennine branded journey adventure, stuff that you could  buy for a fraction of the price in the corner shop a few yards from the station – KitKat, Walkers Crisps Grab Bag, Maltesers, Eat Natural Bar and Coke. Truly scrumptious it ain’t.

We arrive in Leeds on time and I’m greeted by Northern Rail’s usual chirpy gateline staff. Looking around the station, TransPennine branding is also in short supply. It’s a shame as by and large this isn’t a bad little TOC. Just keep the railway folk away from the marketing and get them to stick to the day-job of running trains – which they do so well.

VERDICT:

The TransPennine brand proposition is odd. The basic service elements are good and the brand components have flashes of style, undermined by ham-fisted corporate and old railway interference and diluted in a Network Rail Managed Stations environment.

 

VISITED: March 2014

SERVICE: First TransPennine Express runs services in northern England. It operates a hub model radiating from Manchester, with three main routes

FARES: An Anytime Day Single from Manchester to Leeds is £19.50. A First Class Anytime Single is £25

OWNER: FTPE is owned by FirstGroup (55%) and Keolis (45%)

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Nick Donovan has been FTPE’s MD since 2011

WEBSITE: www.tpexpress.co.uk

NPS: 85% ‘satisfied’ (Autumn 2013)

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!