The rail industry is not making sufficient effort to clearly explain to customers how an engineering closure has improved the service

 

Engineering closures are often essential but they are inconvient for train users

 

Part of the UK’s Christmas and New Year traditions is the annual closure of the national rail network on Christmas and Boxing Day and associated rail engineering works. Demand for rail services is markedly lower during the Christmas period as many people are on holiday in the UK or abroad. For those people who continue to work and use the rail network or are travelling socially during the holiday period, these closures can be quite irritating and disruptive. Nevertheless, the rail industry has taken the decision to utilise the reduced demand in order to maintain or upgrade parts of the network, or fulfil engineering works that are difficult to complete in a single weekend.

I would like to focus, however, on a broader issue in terms of the how the rail industry focuses on customer needs and engagement around engineering works; in particular the gap between disruption and customer engagement in Britain.

Firstly, I expect that potentially more national rail engineering work could be completed in overnight possessions and this could reduce the need for longer weekend closures as well as longer term closures. However, the nature of rail engineering and need for the movement of large pieces of equipment, complex and restricted engineering sites as well as the safety of workers means that substantial amounts of works will always need to be completed in longer term closures. It should be noted, though, that London Underground – after many decades of saying it couldn’t be done – have been able to run 24-hour weekend Tube services on many of the modernised lines in the city and consequently accept that the available engineering hours with no passenger service have been reduced.

The particular gap that seems to exist in the national rail industry is the linkage between the execution of engineering works and the explanation of the consequential benefits to consumers (the travelling public) or wider community stakeholders

The particular gap that seems to exist in the national rail industry is the linkage between the execution of engineering works and the explanation of the consequential benefits to consumers (the travelling public) or wider community stakeholders. There seems to be an implicit attitude that “….there is no service at present while we do something. When we are finished, we will again provide a service…” The rationale for the disruption, how it will improve a customer’s journey, whether it has been successfully completed and thus will not need to be repeated, and whether it is value for (public) money rarely seems to be explained.

There is a severe danger in this attitude in an era of increasing public scepticism of authority, decreasing trust in organisations, and the ability of the public to independently gather and discuss information regarding businesses. In the long term customers and stakeholders will not trust organisations that are not honest and transparent about how they are managing their services. Much of the communication around national rail engineering work has been falling into this approach.

There have been some successful individual projects that have clearly explained the needs for the works and the resulting benefits. Often these are the largest projects and in many ways the resulting benefits become obvious to the users. Examples would include the multi-year work around London Bridge station creating a global showcase of railway design.

The works to electrify the Great Western Main Line over the last few years have also been clear in their intent, if not in some of the resulting impacts on services such as those on local branch lines.

Also, as a user, while I have concerns about some of the details of the Waterloo station closure during summer 2017, it was clear that these works would lead to longer trains being able to use extended platforms.

The rail industry has over the last few years much more clearly explained to customers the issues that leaves have on the railway and why this causes operational problems in the autumn.

For most closures on a typical weekend as well as many of the closures we have seen over the 2018 Christmas period the industry has defaulted back to the position of “…it is closed because we are doing something, it will reopen when we are finished…”

Nevertheless, for most closures on a typical weekend as well as many of the closures we have seen over the 2018 Christmas period the industry has defaulted back to the position of “…it is closed because we are doing something, it will reopen when we are finished…” The link to the customer benefit of the works is not clear, even to an industry observer!

I particularly note the significant closure of the routes between London Victoria station and Clapham Junction this holiday period as an example of this situation. In considering this article I was particularly interested to see whether this issue would be addressed in the communication before, during, or after the closure. As a local traveller I have noted no subsequent explanation of the work, its success or benefits.

I also note a recent set of overrunning weekend engineering works in November 2018 on the South Western Main Line between Surbiton and London Waterloo. The result was that on a Monday morning almost no services could use the mainline until early afternoon. The disruption was severe. Although, there were posters and online communication apologising for the chaos on the day, it was interesting that no explanation was provided of what the original work was trying to achieve, or how services have subsequently been improved in any way.

The High Speed 2 works over the coming decade offer an opportunity to address this issue via their communication programmes. However, I expect these to be done well due to the high profile and dedicated resources that this national project will attract.

The rail industry occupies a unique position in the market and direct comparisons with other industries are often difficult. The UK highway network has over the last few years become much more focussed on customer information regarding roadworks and delays. However, as a private motorist, the individual has much more control over their journey timing and routeing options – particularly with the advent of satellite navigation.

In other businesses such as retail, a store that is closed for reconstruction is directly related to the expectation that it will reopen with newer and better facilities. A well run retail organisation will highlight the changes upon reopening and demonstrate that the inconvenience of the closure has had specific benefits. There is also often the opportunity to direct customers to alternative branches during the closure or a relevant online retail offer.

Services such as retail banking, hosting, email services, etc might also have periodic, if not regularly scheduled, service closures – usually in off peak periods. Often these service interruptions are linked to demonstrable service upgrades. However, in some service industries, such as online banking, the results of service interruptions have become as opaque as many in the national rail industry.

The rail industry seems to take the view that ultimately customers only want to know whether a service is running or not. The reasons for engineering work are perhaps considered too complex and not necessarily interesting to the busy traveller. To some extent this is true and as an industry we shouldn’t attempt to treat all of our users as transport planners or scheme engineers. However, the rail industry in Britain continues to consume over £15bn in public spending each year. It is an essential part of the transport infrastructure to support much of the economy. The industry is also seeking even more support and funding growth. How the rail industry spends its funding, what is being achieved, and how this will make the journeys of customers better should be at the centre of its ongoing communications programme to impacted customers.

Sadly, on a day-to-day basis this is not the case. The rail industry is not making sufficient effort to clearly explain to customers and stakeholders how the disruption of a weekend’s, or week’s, engineering closure
has improved the services that they can  expect to receive.

 

About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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