For almost 25 years Anthony Smith has represented transport users. He’s about to move on and leaves behind a strong legacy

 
Anthony Smith received the ‘Lifetime Contribution to Transport’ award at this year’s National Transport Awards

 
The internet was just a novelty, text messaging was starting to replace pagers, compact disc players were in their pomp, Connex ran two rail franchises, Manchester United were unstoppable, Tony Blair was prime minister and ‘When the Going gets Tough’ by Boyzone topped the charts, when Anthony Smith, aged 39, first walked through the doors at the Central Regional Users Consultative Committee (CRUCC) on Monday, March 15, 1999. He was the new chief executive and, by his own admission, he knew hardly anything about public transport.

It was in a huff at not getting the head of legal role at Which? magazine, where he had spent five happy years that led Smith to take on a job regulating premium rate phone lines, many of which were of a highly salubrious nature. And then he saw an advert for the chief executive at the CRUCC in The Sunday Times. Having qualified as a solicitor, but not wanting to follow a profession in this field, he had the right credentials for the top job at the organisation that ultimately became known as Transport Focus.

24 ¾ years later and Anthony is preparing for his last week at Transport Focus, I’ll be honest, even though he has this avuncular looking beard and more of a professor look about him, eternally posh-speaking Smith (he was brought up in Sevenoaks Weald), still looks like the work experience boy that I thought he was when he turned up at a meeting in which I was present at the Strategic Rail Authority a few months into his job. The going might have got tough having to challenge a litany of customer service farces by the transport sector over the years, but he’s still got those customary youthful good looks and sense of wide-eyed energy and excitement as he moves onto pastures new.

I caught up with Anthony, a couple of weeks ago and learned that he didn’t think he’d actually stay long at Transport Focus but the ‘addictive’ nature of the industry was very seductive indeed. “It matters to people, and the country,” he tells me. “It’s important.” For Anthony, transport is a “fascinating blend” of government, local authorities and the private sector, “but it’s all about people”.

Back in 1999, CRUCC only worked in rail, but the organisation added bus and coach to its portfolio in 2009/10 and then, in 2015, national highways joined the family. With his trademark ‘less is more’ brevity, Smith sums up nearly a quarter of a decade of work in one paragraph: “That was crucial, as we became genuinely multi modal . We got out of the public transport ghetto because people travel the way they need to travel. So getting into roads was really important for the organisation. We then got through Covid, and the last thing was ticket office closures. All this kept me interested, intrigued and there’s great people here. It feels like leaving a family and they really do care.”

Society has become more customer centric and it has percolated into transport

Anthony asserts that the industry is more customer focused now. There was much less talk about customers in the early days. He explains: “Society has become more customer centric and it has percolated into transport, helped by franchising incentivising folk to get happy customers in rail, and buses being more naturally focused on customers because they are more like a business … Meanwhile, roads are a monopoly provider, crucial to have a customer outlook otherwise it becomes an engineering guerrilla producing things customer doesn’t want.”

All this is well and good, but I ask if we’re living in a more customer-focused sector, then how did the idiocy of the abolition of the one day travelcard and ticket office closures come about? Smith believes that the former was a result of devolution providing odd side effects, such as a fractious relationship between mayor and the Department for Transport, where a decision in one place affects a broader area. But, as we found with the subsequent uprising, consumer pressure works still even today.

Despite this, though, I express my frustration with Transport Focus for not instigating riots with every annual fares hike. Smith, far more mature than I, explains: “There’s always been a creative tension because we are sponsored by the DfT and we are an arm’s length body of government, but it has always felt independent and department never told us what to do. But there is subtle tension and we are funded by taxpayers, so there is a degree of responsibility that comes with that because the people you are criticising, the next day you have to sit down and talk to them about how you improve things in the future.

“You could shout and get headlines every other day, but you wouldn’t have a relationship with the industry and a government that think you are useful. They’ll stop listening. The quality of that relationship needs constant curating and tending. You have to earn respect, keep it, and look out for it every day.”

Importantly, he adds: “You spot good practice, there’s tons out there, and pointing that out is as important as pointing out weaknesses”.

All this conciliatory, sensible stuff doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the current fares situation is nonsense. Smith coined the headline years ago “eye watering fares rises” and he says that fares have long passed this point and remain “really worrying”. He also first used the header “rich man’s railway”.

An empty seat is an offence. Ryanair wouldn’t do that. We’ve got to get that mentality into the system because if we just go for cost reduction, we’re doomed

“Transport is meant to be available to all,” Anthony says. “When you look at the landscape of railway, the private sector has got to be involved. We have got to drive costs down and drive customer focus up. The more open access the better. The current state of rail costs a lot of money and its ability to change and improve customer focus is not on an even keel. If you go for cost reduction, you go for managed decline. You’ve got to go for growth. Any seat for a £1 is good as costs are fixed. An empty seat is an offence. Ryanair wouldn’t do that. We’ve got to get that mentality into the system because if we just go for cost reduction, we’re doomed.”

Apart from thwarting the scandalous ticket office closure plot, Smith’s second finest achievement, in my view, was the National Passenger Rail Survey – the results of which take pride of place on my CV.

“NRPS has been at the core of our business model,” he says. “It’s simple, you go out and talk to people and ask what they think of their last journey, so it’s current, and then you print a league table. Whatever people say about league tables, they are concerned about it. Motorway services fight tooth and nail not to be bottom and they invest to get up the league table. You talk to customers, they give views, you invest to get better.”

He adds: “One of my great regrets in life was post-Covid we didn’t re-start NRPS,” Anthony admits. “An Achilles heel post-Covid was that we did not have a public measure. We still get people asking about NRPS.”

There will be a successor ‘Customer Experience Survey’ which the DfT is funding. The department will procure it and then hand it over to GBR and everyone will have access to it. Transport Focus has been heavily involved in developing and piloting the new survey alongside its own regular Omnibus survey – the only current published passenger satisfaction data.

The Bus Passenger Survey has been replaced with ‘Your Bus Journey’ and full results will be published next year. This is a key part of BSIP/Enhanced Partnership programme in England, providing the government with some sense of what they are getting back for their investment.

“The benefit of Transport Focus has been that it does a lot of work helping the industry determine what to buy going forward,” says Anthony. “You spend time helping those with power to buy the right thing for customers.”

I wonder whether Smith is aware that he has created legendary status and become Mr Customer. Though he is modest and says he hasn’t, he gives an impressive insight into the importance of a strong leadership style.

“Whenever you are leading an organisation, it has to appear you are utterly crucial to the success of the organisation, figurehead, energetic, talk to people, the be all and end all,” he says, “but underneath the organisation has a strong DNA and when I leave it will continue.”

Smith created an impression of being indispensable despite not really knowing much about transport when he arrived in 1999.

I knew I’d end up in transport at some point

“I was interested in trains because that’s what my Dad was,” he says, “I knew I’d end up in transport at some point.”

But Smith is not a hardcore transport nut. Modern traction is his gig, steam “does nothing for me” and he forcefully tells me that he has “absolutely zero interest in model railways”.

“When I arrived [at CRUCC] I just asked who the people were who were making noise and I went round and spoke to them,” Anthony recalls. “So I spoke to Stephen Joseph, David Begg, to everybody I could find who was a noisemaker, and that’s how you get intelligence, gossip and that’s how you know what’s going on, constant feedback coming through.”

I feel quite proud to be a noisemaker then as Smithy quite a few times invited me to his perpetually moving office, to chew the fat. He’d always sit and listen with that pontificating face he pulls, whilst I gossiped, berated and dreamt up some whacky innovation that he would politely endorse.

He continues: “I go and get to know journalists. Don’t be frightened of them because they are really important in terms of you getting your message out … Get yourself to be the first person they’ll ring up. It felt instinctive but I also enjoyed it.”

I ask whether he ever got into trouble? I know he’s a smooth talker, but it’s impossible in an industry that is quite often prickly and defensive not to wind someone up.

“Well, no,” he responds. “We’ve had to keep a close eye on the department and various secretaries of state … When you publish stuff, they don’t like, they get on the phone. We always made sure we base our stuff on evidence, not anecdote. We’ve prided ourselves on the quality of the insight. They may question the interpretation but the core insight is always good quality and professional, and that gives you a tremendous shield.

“What we do is good for the industry, but to earn trust you have to be responsible, reasonable, proportionate in what you do.”

 

 
Smith is a consummate professional. He’s one of the most polished smoothies I’ve come across, but not in a boring, anodyne corporate clone way. He manages to get his point across with animation, but carefully worded. In late March this year, he lit up a conference I was hosting in Birmingham, attended by both frontline staff and industry bigwigs, with a speech so eloquent around customer service that everyone was talking about it in the pub afterwards. He did it with one crib-card in his hand and it was all on the hoof.

He’s also always been known for his succinctness. Emails with literally one sentence that tell the tale, and his mantra is that if you can’t do a presentation on one slide then it’s not worth doing. So it’s a surprise that towards the end of our chinwag he can’t stop reiterating that reliability is the only thing that really matters.

“Look, reliability is really boring,” he says. “Everything I’ve learned points to the need to stick to timetables. If you can deliver that you can deliver 90% of what customers want, and if you do that you gain the trust of your customers and they’ll forgive you for a lot.

You cannot give enough attention to reliability and delivering that basic promise. That’s what people are buying when they buy a ticket

“The way you handle disruption is key. Like food in a restaurant, if the food isn’t good you worry about a whole load of other things. You cannot give enough attention to reliability and delivering that basic promise. That’s what people are buying when they buy a ticket … If you don’t get that right, you’re going uphill.

“A clean, new electric train that’s late is a late train and this is more important to people than the green agenda. They’d rather swap an old diesel for an electric if it is reliable. If it is reliable, they’ll tell other people.”

Smith is so entwined and embedded in the customer cause that’s it’s hard to think he has a life outside of transport, but he does. Living in Wandsworth, he hangs around Plough Lane watching AFC Wimbledon and is also a fellow regular at Crystal Palace FC. He loves military history (“I could give you a really good tour of the Battle of Waterloo”) and he’s a big music man. He particularly loves tribute bands (“they’re often better than the real thing!”). A Neil Young tribute band from Belgium is his favourite (“I mean, how completely weird is that Alex?”), and he can’t wait to go to Abba Voyage next year.

The degree of cooperation that gets the plane airborne is incredible

A walk and pint are other favourite pastimes but he’s not looking to scale back work too much – he’s chair of the Heathrow Area Transport Forum, which he excitedly explains is about making transport more sustainable and less polluted, and keeping customer experience good. “The degree of cooperation that gets the plane airborne is incredible,” he remarks. The previous day he was at a meeting at Hounslow Town Hall and he describes looking out onto the flight path, with child-like awe and wonder.

For sure, there will be countless folk tapping up Anthony, the definitive customer service guru, for advice and support, including myself. He’s a good bloke too and I say this not just because he’s always been on our side in fighting for the rights of customers. I’ve received a few WhatsApp messages of late from people in his team, unprompted comments that aren’t platitudes but deeply affectionate, sincere and admiring remarks, the kind you tend to say about a really close friend or family member, not some bloke you’ve worked for.

My consultancy recently commissioned a high-brow insight programme, so impressive it could have been commissioned by Smith’s team. It consisted of me saying the words ‘Transport Focus’ to a sample size of 25 people, spanning the full demographic spectrum of UK society. Within five seconds, 96% of respondents, shouted out the name “Anthony Smith”, such is the extent to which he is instinctively synonymous with the organisation. The responses of the other 4% consisted of “complaints”, “customer”, “consumer” and “trains”.

It feels unique for the chief executive of a public sector consumer body to be as revered, renowned and in folklore as Anthony Smith. I can’t think of it occurring before in transport history, nor in other sectors, and he’s up there with those iconic industry names who have been doing more glamorous stuff, such as founding or running transport organisations – household names, such as Giles Fearnley, Moir Lockhead, Bob Reid, Chris Green, Adrian Shooter, Peter Hendy, Brian Souter and so on.

He hands the baton onto his successor, Alex Robertson, who, as Anthony concurs, is a “great appointment and has a fabulous CV”. Transport Focus is an organisation that has stood the test of time, through ebbs and flows and threats within the industry, but it is still alive, vibrant and has a great future. For this, customers and the sector owe him a huge debt of gratitude. To say Smith has left a legacy would be an understatement.

 
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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