Worried that your company might get the ‘Travel Test treatment’ in 2014? Here are some of the things that Alex Warner will be looking out for

Super Frenchy had it spot-on didn’t he? The iconic former MD of Brighton & Hove, Roger French, recently made good use of his now free time by touring the UK bus network, but his retirement relaxation and bonhomie was trampled on by some hell-raising, appallingly subterranean standards of customer service. Thankfully, he captured some of them on camera and later lambasted at a recent CILT last autumn (PT071).

As one year expires and another dawns, it’s this realisation that so little progress has been made in some areas, that is enough to provide the most sobering of January blues. 2014 really needs to be a year of clinical intolerance around attention to detail aberrations from all of us who care about customer service. I’ll share with you some of the things that will tip me over the edge in this column over the next 12 months.


Drivers, give us a smile

It became my Number 1 one irritant in 2013 and don’t expect me to turn a blind eye to the soul-sapping, nefarious nonchalance of bus drivers who just ignore customers who are decent enough to bid them farewell when they leave their bus at the end of a journey, or grumpily glare at them with faces that make a baboon’s bum seem attractive.

If you said hello to me in the street and I just ignored you, it would be the height of rudeness and that’s not as if you’d already paid me money for a service, in the first place. It’s a scourge that has affected whole swathes of the bus industry. Too many drivers act like primadonna Premier League footballers, ignoring autograph hunters as they prance off the team coach with their iPod earphones on, heads down to ignore those that pay their wages.

Bus managers need to take on these arrogant dimwits, teaching them basic manners and then sexing up the CPC training so that drivers are all consumed by an uncontrollable passion to delight customers. Fair play to Go South Coast who have, ahem, engaged yours truly to do just that with their training.


Sloppy ticket inspections

Still on the theme of unprofessionalism, did any of you spot in 2013 an encroachment of the slovenly practice of on-train ticket checks consisting of a biro scrawl on the ticket? You wouldn’t necessarily mind if the scrawl consisted of something that had logic to it, like the conductor’s initials, a date, time or location, or even some work of graffiti or modern art, a doodle even. But no, what is now almost the norm is barely a squiggle, with no relevance whatsoever.

Before I became an embittered has-been and was in my mid-1990s prime at London Underground, we were given humongous ticket stampers that were so big they couldn’t fit in the uniform coat. These stampers looked so professional – date and time and so narrow at the point at which ticket met stamp, that they demanded a proper inspection of the ticket and added to our credibility. No wonder, we got the respect of customers.


Wind-down winds me up

Talking of professionalism here, it’s amazing that even in 2014, as I write this, there will be trains touring the network with on-board staff in wind-down mode, sat in First Class discussing what they got up to over the festive break and who copped off with who at the Christmas party. On many InterCity services those post-morning rush hour services travelling back north from London the staff (all Northern-based folk, of course) are supposedly shattered by having served endless breakfasts on packed trains on the inward journey. They don’t give two hoots about us Cockney mugs who have shelled out 300 smackers on a peak time fare for the return working from London. We have to endure the endless drone of their gossip while waiting for a cup of tea that tastes like gnat’s wee.

The only time the staff seem motivated on these services is for their churlish and cheerless Gestapo-like ticket restriction announcements that are deviously timed to commence the moment the train’s wheels have turned and thus too late for errant customers to disembark and avoid paying the exorbitant full standard fare for their mistake.


Arcane procedures

Whilst we’re at it, despite this being 2014, trolley service or buffet car opening hours are still geared round the needs of the railway, rather than customers. It’s not as bad as the old days of the buffet not opening till Bedford and closing by Derby on a Sheffield service, but how many times do you still hear that the word “stock take” or “to enable preparation for the next service” as an excuse for a closed buffet, or if you’re lucky it’s open but doesn’t take credit cards?

2014 and we’re still operating in an antiquarian manner with our arcane inflexible procedures, only in public transport, like “exact fares only” on buses… gee-whiz don’t get me started there. Getting bus companies to scrap that is more challenging than proving the business case for HS2 or peace in the Middle East.


Wi-Fi? What’s Wi-Fi?

Still with the on-board experience and it was a bit of chortle when I boarded buses in 2013 and asked gap-toothed, elderly drivers how to work the Wi-Fi, knowing they’d give me some cock and bull excuse about never having turned a computer on in their life, let alone knowing about the internet. This will grate as we kick on this year. Brief your drivers please bus managers, it’s not rocket science. Train companies take note though: why is Wi-Fi free on a cash-strapped bus operator, but you TOCs, with all your fat subsidy cheques, big management structures and obese fares feel fit to charge for it?

Whilst you’re at it too, can you make sure your on-board plug sockets work. For remote workers, such as I, the ability to work on a journey, with the laptop charged, is absolutely essential. And, if you keep me occupied on my screen, it saves me having to be distracted looking at faults to find on-board, such as whacking seats looking for dust and checking underneath the toilet seat for evidence of staining.


Calling all call centres

Call centres won’t be immune from my hawk-eye and Traveline are coming onto the radar a little, following a few sneaky calls. I’ve been passed from regional office to regional office, one minute Keighley is in North East Yorkshire, the next it is in Leeds, for instance, and try asking for anything that deviates from the most basic timetable information. How long would it take for bus operators and Traveline to get their acts together and ensure they have details about services and products? I’m not expecting them to be all singing all dancing sales ambassadors, but even to be able to give a fare or explain whether buses are low floor or whether there is free Wi-Fi or the correct name of the operator isn’t too much to ask. Everyone has a role to play in making it more enticing and attractive a proposition to travel by bus and showcase services. Traveline aren’t exempt.


Keep it clean

Will this be the year hub-caps are glistening or where grime accumulated at the point of which seat stanchions on buses hit the floor is seen as important and cleaned away? Will bus drivers go the extra yard and pick up discarded tickets chucked on the floor or even refrain from just throwing those issued for concessionary pass holders between their cab seat and front window (as happened yesterday on my bus in Surrey, ahem)?


Meet customers daily

Will we see ‘Meet the Manager’ events at last scrapped so that they are no longer just a box ticking exercise for railway managers to satisfy their consciences that they actually meet customers and that spontaneous engagement with customers becomes a habit, rather than one-off?


If two or three of the above gripes are successfully addressed (and they’re not just my moans, I’ve talked to other customers too, folks), then 2014 will be a success, it really will. Most of these issues have been un-tackled for decades and the excuses must run out. Forget Crossrail, HS2, Quality Bus Contracts, re-franchising and all the other big ticket stuff, it’s on the attention to detail that transport’s greasy pole corporate climbers, with their ego-massaging job titles, will genuinely have earned their crust. And, more importantly, Frenchy might be able to finally relax and enjoy his well-deserved retirement.


This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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