Different public transport operators have taken different approaches to compensation during the coronavirus pandemic. Nick Richardson has hit the blunt end of the spectrum ‘in which the operator keeps the money regardless’


The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the loss of many passenger transport journeys. There are arrangements in place for season ticket holders unable to travel by train through no fault of their own. Apart from having fewer journeys provided, the lockdown has meant that people shouldn’t be using trains unless they really have to. Many office workers have managed to transfer their activity to the home. Hence it is entirely reasonable that they don’t pay for a service that they are not using and in most cases are prevented from using. Given the huge cost of many season tickets, automatic payments in compensation are an example of good customer service.

Keeping away from the staff

In London, the temporary use of the middle doors of buses to avoid any transaction with drivers was entirely sensible but it meant that all journeys are free. The casualty rate of COVID-19 among bus staff is deeply regrettable and every action should be taken to promote social distancing and instigate universal transactions that don’t involve cash. Elsewhere, two door buses are not widespread so it would be difficult to replicate this everywhere unless the driver’s cab is sealed off to avoid any contact with the passengers; this has been achieved for many vehicles although it inadvertently undermines building any sort of relationship with them. Other operators await their delivery of the materials needed for barriers.

Working together should not be a breach of the competition regulations and has the potential to promote a healthy increase in bus use

However, there is a significant bonus in that on some of my local services, the two main operators Stagecoach and First are accepting each other’s return tickets for common sections of route. This is apparently to avoid extended waiting by key workers. This shows that operators can cooperate when they need and extending this permanently should be possible – why should anyone, not just key workers, have to be selective about which bus they board? Try explaining that to the consumers. Surely the benefits to all operators would be significant and no-one would lose money as a result. It highlights how the offer is a bus journey, not a specific bus operator’s journey. Working together should not be a breach of the competition regulations and has the potential to promote a healthy increase in bus use.

Upsetting the customers

Unfortunately, not all businesses are taking up customer care opportunities. Long-standing readers will be aware of my interesting relationship with First buses in purchasing season tickets for the children to get to school. Initially this involved a long wait, customer information stored on bits of cardboard and a special journey to First’s office because the tickets were not available online. This has moved on over several years with these tickets now only being available as a mobile phone ticket although getting one is not straightforward. Schools/colleges issue the tickets therefore First has to be given an email address from the school in question with an ‘.ed’ suffix. Unfortunately the school in question has a different suffix but having overcome that problem, the ticket needs to be verified by an appropriate parent/guardian via email; this seems pointless if the payment has already been made. A school season ticket lasts three terms rather than a calendar year, hence the apparent discount isn’t great. Having managed to obtain a ticket, one problem arises when the users (remembering that they are teenagers) forget to recharge the phone, only to be met with an uncompromising exchange with the bus drivers who tend to treat schoolchildren as vermin rather than valued customers.

With a new school year approaching, I purchased two bus tickets last autumn at a combined cost of £930, hardly an insignificant amount of money. The service itself, although individually branded and with decent buses, remains unreliable and hardly smacks of superior service standards. Even the on-board wifi is unreliable which is a problem for any teenager travelling for more than five minutes. When the lockdown came into force and with all schools being closed from March 20, the tickets became redundant. Not only were there fewer buses than usual, there was nowhere to go and emergency rules about not going out. I contacted First about a refund given that one term of the three was cancelled. First’s response was by the book in that the ticket was purchased with terms and conditions that were fixed so was not refundable. With two children not going to school for one term of three, they hold tickets that cannot be used. This seemed rather unfair so I registered a complaint with Bus Users UK which responded by saying that it would contact First but couldn’t compel them to do anything. Compare this with those bus companies that were quick of the mark to deal with customers in a helpful way.

They don’t give a stuff that their customers are paying for a service they are not receiving. No doubt First will be wondering why their customer base is declining

On my behalf, Bus Users UK pushed First for a response which included some twisted logic: buying a season ticket means that ‘a large proportion of the ticket is effectively complimentary’. The reasoning is that for the 28 weeks for which the ticket was used (and ignoring school holidays in that period), it would have been more expensive to buy First’s weekly ticket (which is why I purchased the season ticket in the first place) therefore the season ticket is not refundable. However, First’s ‘gesture of goodwill’ is ‘to offer to issue four month tickets into the account for the time remaining’. I think this means that they will carry over some of this year’s ticket to next year but one of the two tickets will be redundant as my daughter has now left school, albeit sooner than expected. First’s ‘goodwill’ extended to adding that they would not consider the matter further. In other words, they don’t give a stuff that their customers are paying for a service they are not receiving. No doubt First will be wondering why their customer base is declining. Now that one consumer is travelling to school for only two or three days a week having not been near it for months, a season ticket represents very poor value. On top of this, the bus now does a detour around the local hospital which adds at least 10 minutes to the journey.

Mixed experiences

Transport Focus has been investigating passengers’ experiences of refunds at this time where circumstances are hardly normal. It found that rail users have a structured and responsive approach shared by some bus operators but not many. I have obviously hit the blunt end of the spectrum in which the operator keeps the money regardless. I would appreciate a partial refund or at least a meaningful gesture because First’s behaviour is shocking. It has been quick to point out that COVID-19 has been disruptive and that some services have been withdrawn but in practice this appears that a global pandemic counts for nothing when it comes to customers. Helpfully, the website also mentions that ‘bus stops, journey planner and real time information displays may also show incorrect information for an interim period’ (i.e. they are all wrong).

Both children have been learning to drive (and awaiting test dates) so it is evident what has become their view of bus use

As it happens, both children have been learning to drive (and awaiting test dates) so it is evident what has become their view of bus use; this is not the way to engage with a potential long term market opportunity. My interaction with First seems to involve an argument rather than a positive customer experience. Presumably it makes good short term business sense to retain customers money knowing that they can’t travel but in the longer term it is a disaster. With this situation being replicated all across the country, it’s an own goal that is entirely avoidable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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