Sometimes we hear that transport is in a dire state, other times the sector is hailed as heroes.The truth is somewhere in between

I’ve had a right royal shindig of a past month or so, on and off trains and buses, in all parts of the UK. I’ve clocked up more miles than Phileas Fogg and if the railway is not on strike, I’ll be on it. Amidst all this doomsday scenario moaning about the state of the transport industry I’ve been well blessed with some good experiences – friendly staff and barely any disruption.

This isn’t an article eulogising and praising everyone, goodness me, I’m hosting a table at the National Rail Awards next week (long story, but I’ve not gone all native, before you ask). There will be enough backslapping and fawning there to see out the year. The problem in the industry is that it’s all binary – we’re either telling folk we’re heroes or everything is stuffed. My journeys made me reflective – transport is not too bad in parts, but far from polished.

What struck me about my trips is that over the past couple of decades, the quality of staff has improved and there has been a step change. There seem to be fewer anti-customer muppets out there. Over the course of the summer, I cannot recall a single bus driver or member of railway staff who I had to blink twice at and ask myself ‘is this for real?’ or get a note of the registration of the bus or description of the gateline employee and feed it back to the transport operators. Back in the day, on at least a third of trips, you’d always stumble across someone who would stick out as a jobsworth who was going out of their way looking for a rumble with customers. Transport managers know who I mean, I’ve a list in my head of the most satanic employees I’ve managed in my career – the type whose name would dominate almost every customer complaint. I’m not saying they don’t exist anymore, but they are in the extreme minority, and I’d say their antics have made them ostracised by colleagues who care about customers and realise that transport is in the fight of its life for survival right now, particularly post-Covid. Whatever the strike-induced employee relations woes, I’m not noticing a backlash among staff – if anything they have more of a spring in their step than ever before, particularly on-train folk.

We shouldn’t crack open the celebratory champers just yet, because there are hard yards still to be put in. The challenge is less around getting staff to put customers first, it’s more a case of making them more polished in the first instance and being bold enough to then try and encourage them to live and breathe a brand personality and create more of a vibe and sense of occasion. I’ve mostly bus drivers in mind in this respect. As part of the Great Scenic Journeys business that I’ve set up, we audit and accredit from a customer experience perspective the routes that are part of our collection across all modes, and this gives us great insights in terms of the state of the nation.

Polish and self-awareness still remain an issue

Polish and self-awareness still remain an issue. Quite often, I hear these endless noise polluting, bordering on officious on-train announcements before the journey commences and just wish them to end so I can continue a conversation with a colleague, get back to listening to music on my headphones or concentrate on work. When I listen to this authoritative, droning drivel, I imagine the employee that comes through the train to be a customer service dissident, pain in the neck, but thankfully that’s never the case, which makes me wonder why, if they are genuinely nice people, do they fail to realise that just because they are given a microphone at the beginning of a journey, they need to come across all jobsworth and verbose?

In terms of polish, we’ve also still got a lot to do with bus drivers and it’s like a dagger to my heart when I’m undertaking a mystery shopping report and literally ready to give full marks as I disembark, only to see the driver also get off the bus and stand outside in full view of customers, with a fag hanging out their mouth, indulging in horseplay with colleagues. It’s also noticeable how a few drivers still have a groupie hanging around them on journeys and often – dare I say it? – those who do not help add value to the branded on-board experience. Yesterday. on an open top bus through the most stunning of scenery, the driver was literally followed throughout his return journey by someone standing chatting to him with ripped jeans, studs and piercings across all parts, unwashed, unkempt hair – he was like someone that you’d see in The Walking Dead. I knew he wasn’t a customer because when I boarded, the bus arrived with him already there and the driver said “hello, you are my first customer today” and then when I alighted, he joined him for a fag. This kind of behaviour should be consigned to the era of On The Buses.

Customer contact staff still lack a bit of polish too and the onus is still on the caller to prompt the employee to provide more than the most superficial of information for their call, tempting them to give more than just the bare minimum. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked, ‘could you tell me what the best journeys for a day out are?’ or ‘what’s the most scenic bus route you have?’, only to receive staccato replies and a complete gulf between my childlike enthusiasm and the employee’s soul-sapping circumspection. I’ve seen better sales patter in the procurement or IT department than from customer relations!

Drivers and rail staff often fail to realise that on a leisure journey, in particular, customers want to feel that their experience is going to be special. The trip they are making is a big deal and they want staff to rise to the occasion – to reflect the brand personality that the images on the side of the bus or train or the marketing has portrayed, to act as if their adventure might pan out in a certain way because the weather outside will give the view a more serene or moody or generally atmospheric vibe and they want simple and decent product knowledge. Animated families arrive at a bus, all fired up about their experience to come, having read the great marketing leaflets, only to be greeted with a driver who isn’t impolite but simply doesn’t wish to share in their enthusiasm. You can see the joy and anticipation fade from the faces of these fun-hungry customers. Why can’t the driver keep their mood going by entering into the spirit and going out of his/her way to create a sense of occasion – a massive smile, some titbits on the scenery, heritage of the route and the sights and attractions on the journey and a hearty ‘goodbye’ when they disembark? Scenic thrill seekers don’t want to feel as if they are getting on the bus for work on a rainy Monday morning.

Self-awareness is key and on social media last month a lady complained that she and her chum had travelled across the world to go on a train over the Forth Bridge, only for the RPO to decide to walk through the train at that point and undertake a ticket inspection, thus encroaching on the experience.
It’s easy to chide staff, but I actually think they are doing a reasonable job despite the efforts of those in suits back in HQ or more likely the comfort of their homes, sipping tea and stroking the cat on the keyboard, whilst they are on Teams calls. On a train last week, I scribbled in my notebook some of the gaps in the end-to-end customer journey proposition that I’d encountered on my travels, and they were mainly those where top brass and their support structures had failed staff and customers, either through a lack of inspiration, impetus, strategy or poor process.


Marketing is a challenge and it’s one that frustrates me massively. I celebrate raucously when I go into a tourist attraction or office, a hospital or university and see some leaflets pertaining to the local bus company or I ask the employee at these third-party organisations if they can give details of the services and they do so and in a manner in which they look like they are advocates. I visit some places, like the Exmoor National Park Centre and the staff are practically caressing prospective bus customers and forcing them to travel on First’s wonderful Exmoor Coaster. Not content with doing just that, they then eulogise about the service on their official and personal social media channels. But these scenarios are the exception rather than the norm and it’s no use just saying ‘we don’t do leaflets anymore, they’re too expensive and it’s all online’ – there are a whole range of ways to engage partners.

The challenge, of course, is time and resources and if the marketing manager works within a big transport owning group, the chances are that they have a patch which stretches from the tip of the Northern hemisphere to the foot of the Southern and they are more overworked, overstretched and under-supported than your local GP or police. What’s more, these valuable resources are paid a pittance even though they are the revenue generators at a time when the industry needs new products and reasons to travel, in a more crowded space where folk in this digital age, are bombarded with marketing messages trying to capture their attention.

Trust me please, particularly as I probably travel more than most, but the area of the service proposition that seems to be most reliable currently involves staff, whereas those customer touchpoints that are not reliable involve infrastructure

Trust me please, particularly as I probably travel more than most, but the area of the service proposition that seems to be most reliable currently involves staff, whereas those customer touchpoints that are not reliable involve infrastructure. This list is not exhaustive, and it includes short-formed trains, empty catering trolleys, plug sockets and Wi-Fi that don’t work. Add in further shortcomings and it’s a litany of woes – defective buses, ticket machines, damaged and out of date notices, empty covings on-board, unbranded buses, unreplaced leaflets. Meanwhile, we have hourly bus services timed one minute after the hourly train has departed at the bus/rail interchange, bus stations that look dilapidated, with blank graffitied poster frames and layer upon layer of grime on the floor, and so on. Don’t get me started on the Travel Shops without a single branded notice and décor that is about as modern in appearance as your musty, local charity shop or church hall.

All this is particularly worrying as the trend towards de-staffing continues unabated, with ‘Workplace Reform’ (as the corporate clones have called it in rail) leading to ticket office closures and reduced on-board staff. We’ll have bus drivers for the foreseeable future but less and less non-driving staff, such as hosts or inspectors hanging round bus stations giving helpful advice. Meanwhile, customer call centres are cutting numbers, leading to longer wait times or transport companies are actively preventing customers from knowing their phone number or email address.

With each month that passes, we travel on a network where the proposition is presented to us in terms of infrastructure, but less or no staff to guide us through it – a classic ‘you’re on your own, fend for yourself’ mentality

With each month that passes, we travel on a network where the proposition is presented to us in terms of infrastructure, but less or no staff to guide us through it – a classic ‘you’re on your own, fend for yourself’ mentality. All this is made worse by, from my experiences over the past month, by the fact that the gaps in the product are those where customers are left to their own devices (literally) and where touchpoints bereft of a human interaction. Can’t those in authority see that it’s frontline staff who, even though they lack panache and polish and can be ham-fisted at times but almost always well-intentioned, they are the favourable touchpoints right? More often than not, staff are the only positive that can be gleaned during the whole end-to-end journey experience.

In some parts of UK transport, it comes down to that age old problem that a minority of those in charge, the so-called boffins who design the proposition and those inspirational, ‘me, me, me’ leaders, are invariably clueless because they seldom if ever travel on their own services. And when they do very occasionally get on-board, they are too busy posting selfies of their great leadership skills on social media to actually look at their substandard proposition with any sense of customer-focused objectivity. Bring on the National Rail Awards next week.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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