That such little progress has been made in the management of engineering works suggests the solution is complex. It is not

This recent tweet from LBC’s James O’Brien sums up how many of us feel about rail replacement services

There are a few phrases in life that trigger a heart-sinking, soul-sapping feeling. “I’m sorry to advise you but on this occasion, you were unsuccessful” being one, “match abandoned, two points each” is another (if you, like me, love your cricket and dislike the rain), whilst another favourite is surely that heard in the dentist chair “it will be another filling, I’m afraid”. Note the emphasis on “I’m afraid”, because there is no fear for the purveyor of such news, just a further fattened bank balance. However, the one that trumps all this is “rail replacement service”. Just seeing or hearing these words can immediately put the mockers on a long yearned for trip, inflicting unimaginable inconvenience that renders the journey completely impractical and in many respects torturous.

Last week, I’d had one-to-ones with grandees of the rail industry and noticed a disquiet from them that the train operating companies have not done enough to enhance customer service. Perhaps this simmering frustration is building because they are all state-funded now – I do not know, but that is what I’ve noticed it.

There are areas where Britain’s train operating companies have not covered themselves in glory and there is now an opportunity to revisit the way that the industry is managed. Rail replacement, including the provision of customer taxis in disruption, is a prime example. Throughout privatisation, the whole experience during engineering works and when the train service goes to the wall has only marginally improved. The litany of woes is quite significant but he’s my summary:

  • Some train operating companies don’t take it seriously enough – it’s mainly late at night or at weekends when they are tucked up in bed or out enjoying themselves, so they never see, feel or hear the hurt.
  • They think it is just about getting a coach, bus or taxi from A-to-B, rather than the whole interface arrangements, such as customer centric co-ordinators at bus stops, directional signage, branding the vehicles, live tracking updates for customers, advance notification, mobility issues and so on.
  • There is no follow-up review process – no “how was it for customers?” type analysis and no metrics.
  • Contracts for the management of rail replacement services tend to be awarded by each TOC to their owning group’s in-house organisation responsible for ‘road transport’ – thus placing an emphasis on the financial well-being of the greater organisational good than the needs of customers.

Let us dissect the last bullet point. Arriva’s Road Transport Solutions business benefited from a two-year contract being signed for it to continue to provide staff taxi and rail replacement services onthe Northern franchise that it was not long about to hand-over to the DOHL. Stagecoach continues to supply such services for LNER, as a legacy of its stewardship of the East Coast franchise until 2018. First Travel Solutions, a subsidiary of FirstGroup now provides its own staff taxi and rail replacement across all its franchises, with the exception of Avanti West Coast.

None of the above is illegitimate, but it does show the extent to which the owning groups supply their own operating markets in terms of rail replacement and taxi services. One might ask why is this a problem? There are, after all, few other providers of such services in any case. Indeed CMAC, who I do some work for, are, I believe, the only independent, specialist supplier of staff taxis and rail replacement services for the rail industry. I’d contest that as it is dedicated to this kind of service and that it is core, it has greater priority and the most expertise. Furthermore, its customers transcend rail and cover aviation, retail, government sectors and hotels and this enables it to have a larger and more tightly managed supplier base but also the ability to harness best practice, innovation and technology.

From my observations, the “in-house” rail replacement providers at the owning groups are run by very competent individuals but they are often people who would prefer to be involved in the actual running of the railway or bus companies and/or are those who have been shunted out and sent to these organisations under the condescending mantra of “special projects”. These teams also have a high turnover of staff, with many downbeat because they are left to feel that what they do is ancillary and this is reflected in their pay and conditions, by comparison with their counterparts in the rail and bus divisions. Furthermore, rail replacement is often seen as the fag-end of the organisation and shorn of investment in technology, IT or supplier control and accreditation, as well as management attention at owning group level.

We should be unsurprised that a TOC owning group would award its own in-house division the contract to manage taxis and rail replacement, particularly in the more recent world of rail franchising where margins are so tight and where these ‘Road Transport’ divisions are increasingly the lone areas that make any decent money. It is also a way to help maintain their profit streams within the franchise itself. However, a downside is that quite often the supplier base is concentrated around its own bus and coach operators and that does not always mean they are the most accessible during disruption or of a sufficient quality.

By allowing the owning groups to award this work to themselves, the DfT is not always ensuring the highest quality service or best value for money. Some TOCs have had no tender processes on rail replacement for 15 years. Some of the owning groups are now extending into customer taxi services and there is a danger that they may bite off more than they can chew and face a distraction to the “day job”, given that overseeing a taxi suppliers over a multitude of locations is not necessarily straightforward, with unique logistical and cultural challenges.

Then, of course, there is this whole insular approach – an environment whereby the TOC does all the planning and publicity, manages all those touchpoints that interface with the rail replacement element of the journey (provision of on-train information and in the station car parks etc) and then procures and more often than not supplies the coach and bus. Many TOCs struggle to openly seek customer feedback at the best of times, let alone review how they managed engineering works from a customer perspective. The whole experience feels as though they are in some kind of bubble, without benefiting from a fresh, external outlook. That the rail and bus companies within the same owning group seldom even talk to each other means that customers do not even prosper from the one benefit that this kind of incestuous scenario provides.

Indeed, the only product innovation I have seen in this area has actually been from the “outsider”, CMAC, in terms of bringing to the market solutions involving taxi permit management at stations, as well as producing a driver app that means customers are guaranteed a taxi in disruption on the rank and also providing a taxi service that is capable of offering a first and last mile integrated solution from a customer’s exact place of origin and destination. CMAC is the only supplier with the capability, through its permit management solution, to ensures that station rank taxis can be tracked – thus having implications for both TOC cost control and the safety of customers.

Customers aren’t just going to return to the railway and accept a shoddy service – they will be more discerning than ever before and it just won’t be acceptable for them to endure rail replacement buses that have no destination signage or that get lost or are driven b

That very little progress has been made in the management of engineering works over the years suggests the solution is complex. It is not – the problem is a lack of prioritisation. Although Transport Focus undertook some useful high-level research in 2018, more detailed external scrutiny and insight collection and analysis hasn’t really been undertaken. It could get worse – our minds are understandably so vexed with getting customers on trains right now that reforming the management of rail replacement is very much a case of “we’ll get to that later”. But customers aren’t just going to return to the railway and accept a shoddy service – they will be more discerning than ever before and it just won’t be acceptable for them to endure rail replacement buses that have no destination signage or that get lost or are driven by drivers who are incapable of engaging with customers.

The management of disruption per se has received untold focus during my 28 years in the industry but the focus has almost always been on the sum of the whole or those aspects relating to information provision, rather than getting into the detail of rail replacement. It is absolutely crucial that the whole end-to-end experience is indeed focused upon, but so too every customer touchpoint so that it comes cohesively together to create a consistently, seamless and branded proposition. The time has come for the bit in the middle, where customers travel on a bus or coach, to receive as much detailed focus as the other aspects.

The DfT needs to be highly prescriptive in terms of standards for the whole management of short notice and planned disruption. It needs to be very demanding, with boots on the ground monitoring the delivery of the experience. It should also consider taking over the letting and control of contracts. Some might say that it already does have oversight of all tenders, but it feels as if recent ones have been presented to them as a bit of a fait accompli, with a sense that if they don’t continue with the existing “in-house” supplier then everything will suddenly come to a standstill. It will not and continuity is only worth having if it is a continuation of a good service which in almost every case is not the case right now. The DfT or – in the new world – perhaps Network Rail should let and run the tender processes rather than being at the behest of the TOC owning groups. A regional tendering process might be better so there is consistency for customers and economies of scale on a pan-operator basis. In Yorkshire, for instance, there could potentially be five TOCs with individual rail replacement and taxi arrangements, which seems counter-productive. Again, the DfT needs to view the provision of rail replacement services as a key contract and one that it scrutinises in fine detail as well as processes aligned to customer needs.

There is a need for a standard specification for rail replacement services, including taxis, and a greater emphasis placed on the value that specialist companies bring to the party, unaffiliated to the owning groups. Their sole existence should be to manage the whole experience – from notifying customers, briefing staff, providing rail replacement co-ordinators on stations and supplying the vehicles and drivers. That way we can avoid the fragmented proposition that exists for customers currently across the multitude of touchpoints.

If anything, the industry needs a ‘Rail Replacement Tsar’ right now, someone, somewhere who can get to grips with the legacy of poor prioritisation and quality around what is actually a key customer priority and source of disquiet. Despite the current doom and gloom about the industry, there is so much infrastructure upgrade investment planned over the coming years that the frequency at which customers see or hear the words “rail replacement service” could be greater than ever before, sending shivers down spines, unless we finally get to grips and take urgent, long-awaited action. The current situation is just not working.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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