It’s hard to believe that this great magazine has been around for 10 years. It’s been part of my development, and perhaps yours too

How time flies! 10 years ago, I was privileged to be selected by the founders of this great mag, Robert Jack and Andrew Garnett, to spend their very first morning as business owners with them in Garfunkels above Victoria Station. I was this mag’s inaugural meeting! You’d have thought they’d have been manically busy, but all we did was while away the time as we had done for years and would continue to do, chuntering carefree about transport industry gossip.

I too was about to embark on a new adventure into my own version of the great unknown. I’d just left public transport, a disgruntled ex-First Bus employee who’d thrown his toys out of the pram, deciding to try his hand at Royal Mail, initially running its business in Wales and Borders.

Then, over breakfast muffins and coke, they pitched the idea of me writing a ‘Travel Test’ column

Then, over breakfast muffins and coke, they pitched the idea of me writing a ‘Travel Test’ column. I would get on board buses and trains and critique the customer service experience, becoming a Mary Portas for public transport. It seemed like a bit of fun, more so even than my longstanding column in the Crystal Palace Matchday Programme, in which I’d been given free rein to criticise former turncoat managers, useless players and opposition fans.

Soon afterwards, I combined my Travel Test research with a work trip down to Wales and I gave Cardiff Bus a rather rough going over. I was surprised that Rob and Andrew made no attempt to sanitise my pull-no-punches prose. I was again surprised when not too many years later the company asked me in to come and help them fix their customer service shortcomings. This became, in truth, a familiar theme over the following decade as I set up and grew my transport consultancy.

I owe Passenger Transport a debt. It’s been part of my “development” – an outlet for an impetuous, over-zealous, former employee in the sector, the rebel who by March 2011 had run his course. I was a bit belligerent, outspoken, non-corporate, bearing the odd grudge, poor on internal politics and slow to adapt. I was fiercely loyal to my brilliant leaders at First Bus (Douglas Downie, Dave Kaye and Nicola Shaw), but incapable of moving with the times when they left in short succession. I was as bitter as anything at National Express losing the Midland Mainline franchise, for which I was customer services director. And I wished my dream job at South Eastern Trains could have gone on forever, rather than ending when our owners handed the franchise back to the private sector. New owners Go-Ahead thought they could do a better job than us lot who had worked so relentlessly to improve the fortunes of a beleaguered railway, and that hurt.

My two pages in Passenger Transport were a place where I could let off steam, bury hatchets, settle scores but all in the good name of the cause that mattered most to me – customer service. Over time I learnt self-restraint, not quite as sanitised as your typical corporate comms department but capable, of getting perilously close to the line, but not crossing it.

The magazine was my link to the world of public transport that I immediately regretted having left. I was at Royal Mail, many miles from my young family and doing a job which was sort of interesting but didn’t set my pulse racing like buses and trains. This mag was the transport fix that kept me sane.

Passenger Transport has made me friends for life and has helped me realise that in business you can have mates in rival companies. You don’t need to view everyone on the other side with suspicion and as a threat. Within the first six months of the mag, I was, on the back of this column, invited to the Young Bus Managers Network to present my thoughts around customer service. Without self-control back then, I imploded – slide after slide berating grumpy bus drivers, dirty trains and stupid senior managers who cared not a jot about customers. Throughout my presentation, there was this bloke in the front row, right in my line of sight, sporting a beard and grinning hysterically at my rebellion. I’d never met him before, but it was Alex Hornby and he typified one of the many chums I was to make in the bus sector and in rail over the ensuing decade.
A fellow customer service nut.

With each article, I tested the boundaries further with our editors. Rob and Andrew are diligent editors but they didn’t cramp my style. They let me go for the jugular on anything and anyone who wasn’t deferential to customers and to hell, they even allowed me to throw stones at pet dislikes of mine that had nothing to do with transport – the Olympics, LinkedIn love-ins, beards, lycra-wearing joggers, civil servants wearing brown suits, corporate dullards, career hungry, greasy pole-climbing, arse-kissers and Alan Pardew.

Unfortunately for me, Crystal Palace manager Pardew had the last laugh as I was sacked after 15 years as a columnist in the programme. He – like one of his predecessors, Ian Holloway – berated the club chairman for allowing my public criticisms to go unedited. But Rob and Andrew weren’t sacking me, even though my vivid descriptions of on-train toilets could turn stomachs. In return for keeping their red pen away from my articles,
I repaid them by uncovering my own skeletons – a third class degree, four failed driving tests before giving up, my model railway fetish, leaving all the jobs around the house to ‘Er indoors, an obsession with Chaka Khan and a penchant for wearing onesies.

The manner in which the operators all accepted they were “fair game” made me respect them enormously, and any misgivings I might have had about the owning groups soon disappeared

I have huge respect for the public transport operators. Despite bringing their customer disservice to the fore, they never (to my face) tried to come after me. Nottingham City Transport downloaded CCTV on a bus to suggest I embellished a negative interaction with a driver but then we all kissed and made up when they invited me to spend a day behind the scenes at HQ and in one of their depots, winning me over with a series of well-prepared presentations. The manner in which the operators all accepted they were “fair game” made me respect them enormously, and any misgivings I might have had about the owning groups soon disappeared. Whilst I won’t shy away from criticising their customer service on these pages, in truth, I’d walk through walls to help them succeed. They all have the best interests of customers and the industry at heart, even if it isn’t always apparent.

I’ve had managers make contact inviting me into their network to write an article and during our tours together it has been them, not me, who have insisted that my article be the very opposite of advertorial! They have also, in the main, allowed me to strip them of their corporate straightjacket, permitting me to take them down a peg or two with ridiculous nicknames. I’ve only twice not managed to lift the lid on the private lives of managing directors – three hours each with a couple of bus sector top dogs, trying to resolutely find out what goes on behind closed doors in their lives and both resolutely claiming they have no hobbies, no nicknames no life outside of work. Transport Focus supremos Anthony Smith and David Sidebottom let me call them “Smithy and Sido” and railway legend David Franks never complained at being referred to as “Daniel Craig” . In contrast, one detail-obsessed transport bigwig was very particular, for some reason, about me removing the description of him pre-ordering a burger in McDonald’s without lettuce and relish.

I’ve also tried to cover the really serious issues. As a middle-aged white bloke I tried to bring to the fore the problem of a lack of diversity in my sometimes clunky way. I attempted to do justice to mental health challenges, but not nearly as well as my outstanding fellow writer Meera Rambissoon so eloquently did on these pages. There was also the “40 under 40” list of the sector’s most talented young professionals, which attracted over 53,000 readers and caused heated debate and consternation. Meanwhile, my discontent with the process for managing rail replacement contracts and the whole experience during engineering works and disruption led to a personal crusade by the doyen of transport journalism, Christian Wolmar, in his column in RAIL and then in The Times – another serious issue that, rumour has it, is now being given a lot more scrutiny than ever before.

So, apart from Travel Test evolving into a more conventional fortnightly opinion piece, what has changed on the customer service front over the past decade? I believe the immaculately clean buses and trains we have rejoiced in during the gloom of the pandemic has been the accumulation of a gradual focus on cleanliness over the previous few years. Frontline employees, though not perfect, seem more focused on customers these days and you’ll be harder pushed as a mystery shopper to stumble across some of the real eyebrow-raising jobsworths or deliberately awkward interactions of yesteryear. Technology, particularly around ticketing has come on leaps and bounds, so too has branding within the bus sector – even if it has almost entirely ground to a halt in rail. There’s been some progress around the diversity challenge and employee engagement more generally. Depressingly, though, I still see PowerPoint presentations from transport businesses talking about the same priorities that remain uncracked as when I started my career in 1993, let alone a decade ago – customer communications during disruption, multi-modal integration and bus stops.

As for so many of us, it’s been a challenging year for Passenger Transport magazine. However, I predict a great future if the industry continues to get behind it. Friday nights, unwinding after a hard week, reading  these pages while soaking up Moulton Brown in the bath, supping a can of coke and Talksport playing in the background is one of life’s simple pleasures. But it’s not just cracking entertainment and relaxation, reading this magazine is the most effective activity that a fledgling transport manager can do in getting a strong grasp on a pan-modal basis of the issues affecting the industry. It offers brilliant tutelage to young and old.

Over the past decade these pages have been my one-stop shop of everything that is happening in public transport

Over the past decade these pages have been my one-stop shop of everything that is happening in public transport, but not in the turgid, self-congratulatory or overly technical way of some other mags in the sector. It’s high on pithy insight, with a bit of gossip and the occasional scandal thrown in and it can get both nostalgic, whilst predominantly looking forward with innovation, whilst championing good causes.

There’s a poignant feel for me as this issue hits the press. On March 1, 2011, I started a new job, outside of transport, at Royal Mail and for most of the intervening years, I combined my role there with setting up and running my own consultancy, Flash Forward Consulting. By a quirk of fate, I sold Flash Forward last Friday and started a new role for the first time in a decade once again on 1st March! Unlike that time, 10 years ago, I didn’t on Day 1 think “what an earth have I done?” – and that’s because of this great magazine. It renewed my love of public transport and introduced me to great colleagues and friends in a way I’d never have managed to achieve so early on in my career. Passenger Transport has given me boundless pleasure over the last 10 years, and most importantly kept me on the straight and narrow. Just about.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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