During the transition to GBR, it’s important that the age-old challenge of rail replacement provision doesn’t get forgotten

This is how many people feel about rail replacement services – and something must be done to change it

The Department for Transport’s excellent market engagement day to start the process towards the procurement of operators for the new Passenger Service Concession contracts couldn’t have made the point more frequently or passionately that it wants folk to contribute ideas around how rail services should be provided. Joined at the hip with the mantra articulated in the Williams/Shapps Review and now being progressed through the fledgling Great British Railways transition team, ‘collaboration’ feels genuine. Everyone, including suppliers, is being implored to stand up and be counted.

So here we go, movers and shakers, welcome to the first of my 10-point blueprints, starting with a subject dear to my heart, indeed a personal crusade – the management of rail replacement services during engineering works and short notice disruption.

During 2018, Transport Focus undertook a comprehensive survey of customers, soliciting views on the handling of rail replacement and the results illustrated significant discontent. The research, alongside my own canvassing of customers and recent surveys, reveals a litany of woes, such as low-quality, unbranded vehicles, inadequate or absent customer information and vehicle tracking, drivers taking a minimalist approach to service provision and a general lack of co-ordination. The unfavourable experience significantly undermined customers’ sense of trust in the railway and was a deterrent to travel. Post pandemic, customers have less inclination to travel and when weighing up whether to make a journey, or not, previously ‘tolerated’ shortcomings, are likely to be the reason to stay indoors. The industry needs to up its game more than ever before.

I also undertook discussions with industry insiders around rail replacement provision during engineering works and in short notice disruption. Mindful that many of them had affiliation with owning groups (who themselves had their own ‘in-house’ provider), there was nevertheless an honest recognition that the supply of rail replacement services should be carried out by independent, specialist providers. With TOCs not having many opportunities to generate money over and above their small contract fee, ‘in-house’ provision of vehicles during disruption not only creates a perverse incentive for rail services not to be recovered quickly but also limits the supply of buses or coaches only to those services controlled within your own in-house function. There was recognition that there was no overall strategic view of the proposition during rail replacement, no attempt to consider how to preserve the integrity of the brand and seamlessness of the customer experience despite the fact that an unwanted road service was being inserted into the rail journey. Rail replacement is currently a disjointed proposition, due to the lack of a holistic lens and paucity of standards.

Taking all this into account, my 10-point blueprint is straight-forward, as follows:

1. Procure on scale for engineering works.
Rail replacement services should be bought at scale by GBR, thereby ensuring that there is one rate for suppliers and uniformity of standards, thus avoiding the commercial conflict of interest within transport owning groups. This would avoid continuous negotiations with suppliers and rates being elevated with the highest always being paid. It could also enable a ‘line of route’ approach to be adopted. Currently, if a line is served by a number of a TOCs, then each tends to have their own plan and supply chain, which creates not only a disjointed and confusing impact on customers, in terms of inequalities of vehicle provision and a mishmash of brands, but also inefficiencies.

A ‘line of route’ approach also means that only one management team is needed, thereby avoiding duplication and makes better use of resources and avoids situations whereby several TOCs procure drivers and vehicles but are not able to share them, which is sub-optimal considering the current driver shortages. The current arrangement also leads to the different operators not working together on the day both operationally but also in the eyes of customers – with that age-old issue of bus and coach drivers or co-ordinators visibly blaming their counterparts and creating an unprofessional image.

2. Create and deliver high quality customer service standards.
At many TOCs, customer service standards don’t exist even for normal service, let alone disruption and engineering works. It’s the ‘out of the ordinary’ events such as these when standards are at an absolute premium. In creating standards for rail replacement activity, TOCs should cover all aspects of the end-to-end journey experience, from customer awareness when booking a ticket, through to the attitude and helpfulness of co-ordinators. There should be a strong focus on protecting the integrity of the GBR brand experience throughout the entire journey and it shouldn’t be allowed to lapse during the ride on the bus or coach. Co-ordinators and bus and coach drivers should, as a pre-condition of working during rail replacement receive my customer care training, whilst supplier management must relentlessly focus on customer-centricity and be accreditation based.

3. Independent procurement of rail replacement.
This has simply got to happen! Transport owning groups are quick to laud and exploit their bi-modal attributes when there is a commercial ‘self-gain’ imperative. They are capable of harnessing their management of bus and coaches to supply their own train companies during disruption, but incapable during normal service of having integrated marketing, timetabling and commonality of standards and brands. Most TOCs don’t know the name of their counterparts in the bus company in their own backyard, yet somehow this isn’t an issue when it comes to their owning group managing rail replacement provision. In fairness to the local train company chiefs, most of the time they are at their wits’ end having to use their group supplier – it often costs more and takes longer for the bus, coach or taxi to emerge when the rail service is suspended. And the quality is poor. It also reduces the instances of local bus routes on more luxury routes losing their premium vehicles to rail replacement run by their owning group on major blockades.

4. Focus on information provision.
Customer service standards for rail replacement will be a key tool, but even then, the conviction and ability to provide information can lapse. Control centre teams should be implored to listen to frontline employees in the heat of the action around the urgency at which vehicles are required and those on stations should have the autonomy in an emergency to advise on local solutions. Too often, a willing taxi provider is turned away because control hasn’t given them the go ahead to assist, or they aren’t on the supplier list! Control should glean insight in real time from those in the thick of the action about the kind of information required to be generated centrally, in terms of specifics, frequency and tone. The GBR logo should be omnipresent at rail replacement bus stops, on the front and side of vehicles and ideally in some shape or form on the drivers’ uniform.

Frontline employees should also show conviction that they understand whether there are engineering works in the near future. Recently, I’ve carried out over 100 mystery shops across the rail network asking ticket office, platform and gateline employees whether there are any engineering works at the weekend, only to be faced with outrageous apathy – blank looks, inaccurate information, a few ‘I haven’t a clue, mate’ comments and on many occasions, just been pointed towards a poster (that is quite often out of date). Management must prioritise the need for employees to be properly briefed on the weekend service provision and mystery shopping and Service Quality Regime audits should assess performance in this vein.

5. Be flexible.
Currently, the approach to rail replacement is binary – there’s a mindset of ‘it’s either a bus or coach’, yet the task should be about ‘moving people’ and indeed often a taxi or minibus is a more customer-centric solution. It’s also about employees having the flexibility to make decisions in the best interests of specific customers – so, for instance, if a train is turned round short of its destination at night on an isolated station and there is a lone customer that looks distressed or may be lost and gone beyond their intended stop, then a decision should be made to relieve them of their suffering by providing a taxi. In the overall scheme of things, the benefits will far outweigh the cost. Employees should identify the customer need and control respond accordingly. It also relies on a provider that can supply a variety of vehicles bespoke to different situations and across all locations.

6. Early decision making.
The experience for customers during unplanned disruption is frequently exacerbated by a mentality of waiting to see how the situation unfolds. Most industry insiders when they travel themselves, can generally identify whether an incident is likely to be protracted – it’s the kind of intelligence, experience and gut instinct that means that us lot, ‘in the know’ abort trains and make alternative travel plans quicker than other customers. It needs such foresight and early intervention and decision making to mobilise rail replacement vehicles, before it’s too late. All vehicles should be tracked, not only so that announcements and advice can be made to customers in terms of their likely arrival at the station, but so that contingencies can be made decisively by control and other employees if these vehicles are caught in traffic.

The GBR logo should be omnipresent at rail replacement bus stops

7. Make cab-rank management should be an integral part of rail replacement planning.
A taxi rank resplendent with high quality drivers and vehicles during disruption is key to mitigating the impact on customers. Quite often the management of taxi ranks by TOCs is relegated to subterranean importance, whereas if it is outsourced to the specialist rail replacement provider then a joined-up approach can be used. Taxi permits would be issued on the proviso that the drivers provide a service during disruption, irrespective of the customer’s intended destination. The provider should also ensure that their supplier taxis are well managed and made to feel that they are part of the collective goal of driving customer service for rail customers and upholding the GBR brand experience as ambassadors. They should be paid quickly for the service they have provided and be treated well. In doing so, they will be more incentivised and positive about taking customers in disruption.

8. Replace arcane ‘railway’ procedures.
Customers want confidence that they will be provided with onward travel in disruption and it won’t hit them in their pocket, just as taxi drivers need assurance they will be paid quickly. The CHARM tool provided by Tracsis, enables frontline employees to provide automated, instant ‘delay repay’ and other tailored service recovery when they are delayed, and so too independent rail replacement provider CMAC Group has provided a technology that avoids employees having to use the ‘white docket’ to provide customers with the opportunity to order a taxi, but instead can provide a pre-paid taxi with just a reference number to their phone.

Compensation in a customer’s bank account and a pre-paid taxi to their end destination, all before they’ve even completed their journey, is possible with technology already in the market. No longer should the rail replacement element of the customer experience feel like stepping back in time.

9. There should be a formal review whenever rail replacement is used.
Within 24 hours of every instance of customers experiencing rail replacement services, a cross-functional review should ensue to assess what worked well and what improvements could be made. Customer and employee insight should be gleaned and there should be customer-centric metrics as part of the overall company scorecard that measures the experience and is a catalyst for the development of future action plans. Bespoke mystery shopping should be commissioned to assess the service provision.

10. Better recruit, nurture, develop and reward those responsible.
Managing rail replacement activity has traditionally been a shunt into a siding for the careers of many. It’s been seen as unglamourous, poorly paid and second best to being entrusted with running a railway. Those in these roles have either been disrespected as quirky and not provided with any development or training, or in several cases, it’s their last chance saloon role before being fired. Rail replacement must no longer be viewed as ‘ancillary’ but seen as a specialism, equal to running trains – it’s moving people, after all, just on roads, not rails. Recruitment should be based on demonstrating a track record in customer service delivery and ‘customer’ should be at the heart of the team’s values and behaviours. There should be defined, bespoke training, accreditation and career progression schemes and parity of pay with other parts of transport.

In determining the future template for the railway as part of the transition to GBR, it’s really important that the age-old quandary of rail replacement provision doesn’t get forgotten. Centrally procured and managed, combined with a more specialist, customer-obsessed approach to supply and delivery, ideally with independent, stand-alone expert providers, rather than those aligned to transport owning groups, holds the key to a better customer experience and us finally cracking it!

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!