Happy New Year to you all. To ring in the new dawn, here are some of the things I hope to see or fear we will see in 2024

Bring back NRPS!

Remember the National Rail Passenger Satisfaction Survey (NRPS)? It was a very simple, quarterly customer survey with a decent sample size. It asked logical questions and was so easy to digest that it drove not only healthy competition across the railway but broke data and verbatim feedback down so compellingly that any decent manager would be able to create an action plan around it. Along with an obsession, in some parts, with a more complicated survey called Wavelength, Covid was the dagger blow to NRPS and although we’ve been promised that an equivalent will materialise, owned by GBRTT or the Department for Transport, don’t hold your breath. We need it badly, not least to hold errant operators to account. Maybe sometime this year, someone with conviction will reintroduce something that resembles NRPS.

It’s all gone quiet over there!

When GBRTT was originally created, albeit in a shadow sort of format, I didn’t have much sympathy for the way in which it was grandstanding and audacious about the future and its role at the epicentre. Social media was awash with bright-eyed industry professionals, as well as those who’d been round the block a few times, almost bragging about joining GBRTT and folk left behind, mainly in TOC-land, felt like losers. Almost three years on, it has seemed as though the GBRTT team have been pretending or convincing themselves that GBR is actually going to happen, and they are now a bit more circumspect. Even if GBR does eventually materialise – which, in my opinion it should, sorry ‘must’ happen – you have to feel for those on its books. They’ve been waiting a long time, some have invested the prime of their careers to this bright future and they deserve to be rewarded for their patience.

I pray that 2024 is a big, booming summer for transport companies. It’s the boost everyone needs right now

Value your marketing departments

The £2 bus fares initiative has been a great fillip for the industry. All good things come to an end, and this scheme may do so during 2024. My fear is that the bus industry both on a pan-organisational level and within the individual operators does not have the marketing resource and nous to ensure that those customers who have been converted to bus, remain as believers when the fares go up. There needs to be real urgency and rigour towards marketing in the run up to the end of the £2 scheme. Hell and fury should be foisted on those companies that don’t prioritise the commercial departments and don’t invest in campaigns to ‘create reasons to travel’ and promote the excellent propositions on offer. I know a great website – www.greatscenicjourneys.co.uk – which showcases fab journeys and places to visit and stuff to do by public transport and has a team of customer service experts ready to help operators improve the experience they provide for customers and get bums on seats. Shameless plug, I know, but I pray that 2024 is a big, booming summer for transport companies. It’s the boost everyone needs right now.

Fears around personal security

Across all walks of life, post-Covid, there has been an increase in anti-social behaviour, to which public transport has not been immune. This has been reflected in everything from staff assaults to trespass incidences on the railway and much more serious crime. Fear of crime is also a real barrier to travel for many and I hear this when I do my vox-pop surveys of customers. I’ll be honest, but even as someone who lives and breathes travelling by bus, there are some parts of the London network where I wouldn’t sit on the upper deck, such has been my susceptibility to perhaps over-exaggerating the frequency of stories I hear about drugs, gun and knife crime in parts of the capital. How long will it be before getting on-board at all is no longer palatable? The situation feels like it is getting worse as we move into 2024.

Groundhog day

The last three months of 2023 were instructive in so far that we learnt that, despite all the technology and years of accumulated experience, the ability of the railway to manage service disruption hasn’t really progressed much. There are times when it feels no better than when I started my career nearly 31 years ago. The floods in September, followed by those last week and with the overhead wires debacle in west London in early December, saw the industry behave like a rabbit in headlights. Hugely respected industry figureheads Andrew Haines and Mark Hopwood were in the thick of two of the incidents and took to LinkedIn to express their thoughts – compellingly so. That they did so was a measure of both the scale at which the industry was still struggling to cope, but also the priority being given to searching for better solutions when disruption ensues. Let’s hope that it is now fashionable to put a PIDD (‘Passenger Information During Disruption) plan at the heart of every organisation’s priorities and there is real conviction, once and for all, to crack it. I’m not holding my breath.

It would be good that the clamour for open access continues, though it needs a decent success rate in terms of applications passed and a level playing field

Opening the floodgates

FirstGroup’s announcement last week of its intention to run services from King Cross to Sheffield was one of those ‘yeah, that’s a great idea’ moments, as we realised the art of the possible of running a fast alternative to the Midland Main Line, whilst also connecting hitherto poorly served locations such as Worksop and Woodhouse. Open access is all the rage right now and it feels like a riposte from the more entrepreneurial folk in the industry. They are refusing to be nullified by the stultifying regime that has inflicted UK rail in recent times. It would be good that the clamour for open access continues, though it needs a decent success rate in terms of applications passed and a level playing field for those that are up and running so they don’t find that franchised TOCs get preferential treatment.

Respect bus industry professionals

I was very encouraged just before Christmas to hear a HR director at one of the municipal bus operators lament the lack of respect given to industry experience across the sector, thankfully not at his company. I wasn’t surprised as I’d heard a week earlier of a HR director at one of the big owning groups apparently saying “the last thing we need is another bus industry professional” at a meeting and setting targets around recruiting non-bus folk. I find it mind-boggling how any company would not be delighted to have those with a wealth of specialist experience and passion for the bus industry at the heart of their organisation. Why would they traduce those who know so much about the sector and for whom buses course through their veins? These are the people who have kept the show on the road during adversity these last few decades, through a period of great societal change. Well pal, they will be around picking up the pieces long after those who think it’s unfashionable to employ them have moved on, chuntering on at job interviews about how they transformed the sector despite being surrounded by dinosaurs.


The forgotten frontline

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the shameless self-promotion by managers on LinkedIn. It really is the club for ‘management’ – but what about the swathes of frontline staff on the outside, who either don’t have the confidence or experience that makes them feel they can showcase their background and aspirations. Whilst everyone else is fawning over each other on social media, who is identifying talented frontline folk and investing in their future? Senior management are only concerned about their own profile. They’ll walk past gateline staff, make some glib, patronising comment, get on their train, and not give two hoots about those they’ve left behind standing in the cold, in many cases feeling that their potential has not been unlocked. If there’s not enough dosh to go round, how about a pause in management training schemes and money being reinvested into equivalent programmes for frontline folk?

37.5% cheaper than an adult bus fare

In 2023, I caught the Transport Benevolent Fund (TBF) bug, stumbling belatedly across this great organisation that offers for only £1.25 per week, well-being, and hardship support to anyone of any level in the sector. Some companies fund membership for their employees themselves, recognising the benefits in terms of staff retention, morale and reducing sickness through the treatments that the fund provides. In many respects, the Transport Benevolent Fund offers an equivalent of private healthcare but affordably so, for frontline employees. For those at the helm of transport companies, I would implore you to open the gates of your depots and induction courses and encourage the TBF membership organisers to come and talk to your teams!

Will this finally be the year when there is clarity around the Passenger Service Contracts (PSC)?

An interminable silence

Will this finally be the year when there is clarity around the Passenger Service Contracts (PSC)? Over two years have now elapsed since the first ‘market engagement day’ and follow-up workshops organised by the DfT regarding these simple and ‘no brainer’ concession-style contracts to gradually replace the current franchises. Then there was silence. I know of at least three hugely successful transport businesses keen to break into UK rail and all are mystified and not exactly encouraged by the current hiatus. Why can’t we just get on with it? It would be fashionable to blame the DfT for this inaction but in the opaqueness surrounding decision making and future strategy in the rail industry, I suspect the buck probably doesn’t sit with them. Your guess is as good as mine.

An unhealthy lack of competition

A recent ORR report claims that there is an unhealthy lack of competition on railway stations in terms of catering providers. At last, the penny has dropped – the scran at stations has for too long been same old, same old and you must go to smaller locations to find any variety. Unfortunately, it comes back to the usual problem of a rail industry which, across all fronts, has had innovation, pro-activity, and a desire to inspire customers sapped out of it. How often does your station manager trawl the local High Street to tap up independent coffee shops and restauranteurs to also ply their trade on his or her platforms. Never, I suspect.

Simple pleasures

Talking of variety, one of my memories of a halcyon era for the rail industry in the early 1990s was commuting from Orpington to University College London, and disembarking the train at Victoria where pop music would be played over the tannoy. It was the reason, I chose Victoria over Charing Cross or Cannon Street – a little touch that filled me with a few minutes joy when getting off the back carriage and walking all the way to the entrance to the Tube. The control room upstairs (I’m assuming they played the role of DJ) seemed fixated with playing Kylie Minogue’s Step Back In Time whenever my train pulled in, which summed up the under-invested state of the network back then. What I’d give to step back in time and for simple innovations such as this to reappear. Bureaucracy and multi-agency corporate governance wouldn’t let this get past first base, but the dullard, fun police industry bigwigs and moribund policy-makers who have stifled creativity these past few years can’t take away our ability to dream. And dream we will for 2024 – bring it on!

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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