Recruitment woes, collaboration in the rail sector, reorganisations within bus groups. These are just some of the big issues of 2022

We’re just over halfway through this fun-packed year and I’m due my customary half-term report on the state of the transport industry so far in 2022. Let’s crack on folks…

CrossCountry customer centricity

Amidst a morass of mediocrity when it comes to customer service across large swathes of the TOC community, there’s a beacon of excellence out there in Arriva CrossCountry. Time and time again, I travel in Standard and First Class and the trains are spotless, the staff buoyant with the joys of spring and the on-board proposition pretty good. Managers are also very visible on the network and there’s a localised feel to the approach, but framed by an overall consistent nationwide product. Managing director Tom Joyner – who is extremely visible in all parts of his manor – has done a fantastic job in bringing this TOC right up there to the very top of the customer service tree.

Hard times

It’s a challenge for customer service obsessives like me to complain too much about bus drivers when I realise that we’re really down to the bone in terms of ‘headcount’ and that recruitment and retention feels almost impossible. A combination of Brexit, sluggish wages, negligent resource planning and this being an employee’s market has meant that staffing is the most herculean of challenges for bus companies. Not even those traditionally customer-focused companies are immune – witness the criticism of Blazefield’s Rosso subsidiary recently when it made a mass of cancellations. The driver shortage has its tentacles everywhere and it is creating an almost existential threat to the sector.

Collaboration can happen!

It was the buzzword of 2021, helped by the Department for Transport putting a requirement for train operators to collaborate as part of their contracts and also suggesting it will be a key tenet of the passenger service contract awards. However, I’ve genuinely seen a change, dramatic in fact. In the main, gone are the days when TOCs, FOCs, Network Rail, DfT and other bodies all used to point score and fight among themselves. Now everyone is largely bending over backwards to collaborate for the good of the industry. Obviously it helps that operators don’t take the revenue any longer nor currently bid against each other for franchises – but it very much feels more than just rhetoric and that collaboration is actually happening. It only took 26 years of privatisation for this matey state to occur, but better late than never.

Self-defeating strikes

Of course, the only non-collaborators have been the railway trade unions who continue to resist coming to the party. What can I say that hasn’t been uttered before about this senseless act of destruction of the transport industry at a time when it is in the fight for its life in the face of pre and post Covid societal change? When I come home from the cricket and talk the wife and kids through the day’s entertainment or regale them of my scorecard from a round of golf, my audience says in unison either, “Nobody cares” or “When?”, as in ‘“When did we ask?”. With the railway’s relevance diminishing with each passing month, this, sadly, will be the response of the public to future strikes if we’re not careful.

History tends to suggest that the bus market demands a more localised approach, responsive to the nuances of the individual communities it serves

Endangered local old-timers

The pandemic has hit transport companies hard, particularly bus businesses. No surprise, therefore, that many of the owning groups have made brave decisions to have a less localised organisation structure and in turn lost a lot of experienced subsidiary managers. These structures tend to be cyclical, owning groups oscillate between big and small regions every half a decade or so and time will tell what works best in adversity. History tends to suggest that the bus market demands a more localised approach, responsive to the nuances of the individual communities it serves. That Go-Ahead has belligerently chosen to continue with its very de-centralised approach and create bright, local brands with a smallish span of command by comparison to its peers, and have stayed out of negative headlines about poor services or a lack of engagement, is a sign of faith in their brands, products and approach and a desire to avoid unsettling re-organisations. Age and experience tends to feel unfashionable in the bus sector particularly now. In trying to dig itself out of a hole, it’s hoped that the big owning groups don’t go too far in unwieldy structures shorn of the kind of sector and market experience that is needed, alongside fresh talent.

Be nice to suppliers

I’ve been a longstanding employee and supplier to the transport industry for nigh on three decades now. During this time, I’ve been privileged to have some wonderful customers. However, it still baffles me how bad suppliers can get treated by some. It tends to be the heads of department or those in procurement who turn their nose up at us enthusiastic suppliers as if we are something you’d pick up on your shoe, belittling our enthusiasm and energy and seemingly intent on doing everything possible not to try a new approach. Or they just delight in saying ‘no’ as though they are rewarded to do so. Those more senior are sometimes not much better, lording it over suppliers, just because they can, or taking our goodwill and work ethic for granted. They either think we are serving them just for fun, because we’ve nothing better to do or they have this instinctive view we are some kind of rapacious parasite, leeching the industry of what dosh it has. And they’ll be as rude as possible to our sales people, not realising that they are only just trying, like all of us and them, to earn a livelihood. One fellow supplier said to me last week, “they’ve just forgotten how to be a nice person”. These same people tend also to say they don’t use headhunters out of policy, but they are the first to call you when they fall out with their employees.

Self-praise is no praise

I’ve said it before and I will say it again until this fad disappears but halo head-banging transport top dogs really ought to concentrate more on running trains and buses on time than popping up on LinkedIn or other social media channels carping on about how great they are or taking photos of themselves doing what I consider to be ‘the day job’, such as being on their network. There are a few exceptions – GWR’s Mark Hopwood’s videos are informative and create a sense of momentum about his TOC, but most LinkedIn posts from those who should know better, are absolute piffle. As ‘Er Indoors regularly says to me, “self-praise is no praise” – spot on.

Commonwealth Games energy

In around three weeks, the Commonwealth Games will commence in Birmingham and its environs. I’ve witnessed at first hand the planning undertaken to make sure it is a success from a transport perspective and I take my hat off to everyone. If all goes smoothly, public transport should receive gold medals in aplomb. Last week, Network Rail’s Denise Wetton organised and hosted an event with over 100 volunteers in Birmingham. We all wore lovely pink hi-vis with the BR logo on the back and after precision-led, perfect speeches from transport top brass, performing arts experts Rada spent two hours whipping us into a singing and acting frenzy. They even managed to energise someone as un-touchy-feely and introverted as I. It was a brilliant afternoon that bodes well for the Games to follow.

Great scenic journeys

I’ve spent some time across the UK in the last six months travelling on scenic bus journeys and increasingly I am seeing that in these post-pandemic times and with staycations booming and commuting declining, these are more vital than ever for the bus sector. Some of these routes go through the most jaw-dropping scenery and by comparison with other transport attractions are a snip at the price. What’s more, drivers are friendly, the vehicles increasingly smart and I’m seeing very happy customers. There’s more to be done for these services to realise their incredible potential and without wishing to plan a spoiler for my gripping soap opera, you’ll hear me talk more about this very shortly, watch this space…

Elusive e-scooters

As someone who doesn’t have a car licence, this e-scooter lark has piqued my interest. It may just be me, but I read lots of headlines about saner people than I crashing them and suffering a debilitating injury or worse. I haven’t really fathomed out how they work either – where can you hire them, for how long and how much? Do you need a helmet? Furthermore, I’ve also seen people just leave them in the street, not appearing to lock them up. How do they not get nicked? This all feels a bit like the London cycle hire system (I’ve also not fathomed out how that really works). Yet, in many a meeting, I hear transport bods throw in phrases like ‘multi-modal’ and ‘e-scooters’, almost as though they get more points in their appraisal the more times they mention them. So, when are e-scooters going to take off? When will they genuinely feel like a big feature of the transport landscape and fully integrated into our network maps? Or will they it be forever an aspiration, just like me kidding myself that I will one day pass my driving test at the fifth time of asking?

I feel confident that new trains will be commissioned with customer comfort at the heart and, dare I say it, I genuinely believe we may see some retro-fitting

Ironing boards ironed out

By making reference to it, the Williams-Shapps Review in 2021 legitimised the acceptance that mistakes have been made in modern rolling stock, such as uncomfortable seats, and that this hardly constituted ‘progress’. TOCs and the manufacturers were previously in denial in their press releases and subsequent utterances that they’d got it wrong by designing trains that had seats so stiff, upright and devoid of any cushion that you’d be better off spending a four-hour journey against an upright ironing board. But the first six months of 2022 has seen a gradual condemnation of this situation. Under Great British Railways, I feel confident that new trains will be commissioned with customer comfort at the heart and, dare I say it, I genuinely believe we may see some retro-fitting. It seems unlikely that 25 years from now, we will still be expected to endure the seats, as they are now, on those trains that entered service in the last half-decade.

Why, oh why, is Wi-Fi worse?

I’m one of those dimwits who doesn’t really know who to blame when the Wi-Fi is patchy or non-existent. Is it the bus or train operator, or the Wi-Fi provider or the government? Is it to do with phone masts? I don’t really know, but during 2022 I’ve been frustrated by the lack of Wi-Fi signal, particularly on long distance train trips. It’s fortunate for those fellow customers stuck in a carriage normally listening to my loud claptrap – I think I’ve been banned from every ‘Quiet Coach’ across UK rail. The reception has got so bad, I’ve given on doing Teams Calls on my travels now.

Passenger Service Contracts silence

After all the brouhaha and market engagement days late in 2021, the silence has been deafening on rail Passenger Service Contracts (PSCs) in rail. And there’s us thinking that it was a slam dunk that c2c would be first off the blocks this year, followed by TPE and then SWR. Don’t hold your breath for the rest of 2022 in relation to PSCs. Or 2023, even.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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