It’s that time of year, six months in, for my customary half-term report on how the public transport sector has been performing


The good…

Keeping it affordable and simple

Let’s be honest, if we cannot get folk to travel by bus when the fares are only £2 then we might as well give up. Thankfully, it’s been a success and there are reports of all seats being taken on many buses and I have seen from my extensive travels greater demand and spoken to many a converted customer. On longer distance routes, growth has been up to 20%. I kid you not you will absolutely not find a better bargain anywhere in modern society than a trip on Transdev Blazefield’s Coastliner service all the way from Leeds to Scarborough or Whitby for only £2!

Reducing the fares has obviously been great, but in equal measure, the simplicity of a flat £2 fare on pretty well every bus route in England is as big a benefit as the low price.
If and when the fares cap comes to an end, please can we keep it at a flat price anywhere? By all means offer multi-operator rovers (such as the Great Scenic Journeys ‘Scenic Explorer’ in North Yorkshire, which goes ‘live’ any day now and is jaw-droppingly amazing value), but please can we keep the core fare a ‘one size fits all’ product. Customer habits have changed, they love the simplicity of tapping on with their contactless card or easily finding £2 in cash, knowing what they are paying. It’s been game changing.

Franchising provides a bit more clarity

A few years ago, I was genuinely worried about bus franchising. I thought it would be boring and I feared that brown-suited civil servants would be entrusted with developing the customer and marketing proposition and those whizz commercial gurus in the bus sector would leave in their droves. I got it wrong, and I can see the benefits of a more prescriptive, simple and consistent customer service proposition on a regional basis. I have seen the local authorities engaging with the industry to gain their views and recruiting bus experts to inject their commercial acumen and expertise.

Whatever your perspective on bus franchising, at least there is greater certainty around the future strategy

Whatever your perspective on bus franchising, at least there is greater certainty around the future strategy. We have a strong grasp of where it is going to happen and broadly when and how. The rail sector, mired in interminable uncertainty, can only look on enviously at its colleagues in the bus industry. How times have changed.

Women in Bus and Coach has impact

The emergence of the Women in Bus and Coach organisation has been impactful and the appointment of experienced transport professional Louise Cheeseman, has been a masterstroke and is already helping steer the industry collectively on the path towards making lasting change. I just wish that we could make a breakthrough in terms of attracting, from an ethnicity perspective, under-represented groups on board buses.

Many bus companies do not resonate at all with those living in the streets in which their buses travel every few minutes. It’s a complex subject and requires a multi-faceted approach, but one which the industry must address. If we do, it will be truly wonderful.

Pristine railway stations at last

I think I’d be quite bored managing stations these days. Two decades or so ago, when I was in my pomp and prime, I used to enjoy presiding over swathes of stations and loved visiting them with my notebook, nit-picking about out-of-date notices, grumbling about broken poster frames, unkempt floral displays, broken benches, smashed windows and stained floors. My attention to detail was unbridled and I regularly gave the ‘hairdryer’ treatment to my errant station teams for their negligence. Some people would say it was a power kick on my part, but, in truth, it was vitally important for us to be all over the detail – railway stations showcase the brand and customer proposition.

These days, on my travels, I’m hard pushed to find such aberrations

These days, on my travels, I’m hard pushed to find such aberrations – it’s as if train companies and Network Rail have tried and tested processes to identify and deal with issues in a timely manner and stations are more compact and confined, with superfluous areas and buildings (those places that used to be a magnet for poorly presented décor and facilities) having been reduced. Local managers don’t appear to take it upon themselves to design and display ham-fisted notices and everything is corporate and on-message.

It’s all a bit boring really. The only thing I have to criticise now on stations is the Hornby model railway display in the LNER waiting lounge at King’s Cross which looks great (but not as good as the one in my attic of course), but the train never moves. It really infuriates me.

Delightful drivers

85% of customers in the Transport Focus ‘Your Bus Journey’ 2023 survey were either satisfied or very satisfied with bus drivers. That’s not a bad score, on a par, if not slightly higher than the various results over the years on equivalent surveys for rail staff and, dare I say it, the lot of a bus driver is more pressurised than of those working on railway stations (cue: furore from train company folk). The pressures of stopping and starting the bus with such frequency, keeping to time, dealing with errant motorists and negligent pedestrians as well as discourteous customers (and there are quite a few on some routes) as well as monitoring what’s going on downstairs and upstairs, including anti-social behaviour – it’s the hardest of jobs. And all this before having to be an encyclopaedia in terms of answering questions about fares and onward travel. I wouldn’t last five minutes, not forgetting of course, I don’t even have a car driver’s licence.

I’m struggling to recall the last occasion when I came across a rude driver. I genuinely cannot. I also get the impression from drivers that I talk to that they are finding one bit of pressure if taken off them, by the uniformity of the fares – £2 every time and customers’ satisfaction with this deal as well, which brings me back to my previous point. I’ve been mystery shopping buses for over 13 years now and there has been a massive step-change in the attitude and friendliness of bus drivers. I also see it on the many customer service training courses that I run for them too – a more engaged and highly contributing cadre of delegates, you’d be hard pushed to find.

…the less good

Invasion of the body snatchers

The self-congratulatory curse on social media continues but is now more geared towards individuals fawning over an employer instead of themselves. Progress at least.

Corporate cloning has led to gut-wrenching, cult-like eulogies with occasional jibes that life is so much better in these organisations than in days gone by under previous regimes. There’s not a hint of self-doubt that customer service and performance in general is just so utterly brilliant, even if like all transport companies there are ups and downs. It’s not just on socials that this is present but also in conversations with those in some organisations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that folk are giving the impression of blissful contentment and that they’ve found the solution to all the challenges facing public transport, but at times and in some places, it’s like watching a modern-day version of the classic film ‘Invasion of the body snatchers’ in terms of brainwashing.

Performance is rail’s Holy Grail

Punctuality and reliability are the bedrock of customer satisfaction yet still remain the nemesis of the rail industry. Granted, Network Rail’s performance is of critical importance, but just when one train company fixes its issues, another comes along with a whole new set of problems. In a bygone previous era, a train company would be grappling with all sorts of diverse tasks and challenges that would constitute excuses for poor operational performance. Distracted by franchise bidding, transitioning to a new franchise, rolling out a whizz marketing campaign or a swanky fleet or a new brand to get bums on seats, maybe increased dwell times at stations due to record numbers of customers travelling – there used to be so many variables at play and competing demands on the time and expertise of train companies. Now, they don’t really have any of these factors as excuses.

Open access opportunists

In a throwback to a more entrepreneurial era, it’s been exciting and entertaining to see the flurry of open access applications recently. Compelling though this is, I wonder if it goes against the laudable efforts to create a simplified railway for customers. Will the ORR, in assessing applications, look beyond the availability of train paths, to determine whether the sum of all these proposals, is commensurate with a better all-round experience across the UK and supports the overall strategy for rail?

She didn’t know there were separate train companies, and the patient and friendly Northern conductor has sat next to her to very politely explain that what she is doing is like going into Aldi with a Lidl gift voucher and expecting to use it

I am writing this article on a Northern train from Hull to Doncaster and a young lady is trying to fathom out why she cannot use her Hull Trains only, Hull to London ticket on this section of the journey. She didn’t know there were separate train companies, and the patient and friendly Northern conductor has sat next to her to very politely explain that what she is doing is like going into Aldi with a Lidl gift voucher and expecting to use it. He’s let her off, but she’s still on the phone to Trainline trying to determine why she ended up buying this ticket. If we created the railway with a blank sheet of paper, I’m not sure we’d do it this way.

…and the ugly

Anti-social antics on the rise

Criminal activity and anti-social behaviour on public transport is on the rise, mirroring societal problems. What surprises me, though, is the lack of trend analysis on a pan-operator and regional basis. It’s as if the industry thinks that hoodlums, thugs and organised crooks are discerning when it comes to choosing where to cause havoc in the same geographical area. Maybe, they do – perhaps they will target a train if it has driver-only operation. It would be good to know and certainly help in terms of future thinking around staffing models.
What’s clear though, is that there seems an increasing proliferation of imbeciles playing films and music or having conversations on their phones on speaker. It’s doing my head in. Why do I want to listen to their gangster rap or movie? This nonsense must cease.

Cheesed off with cheese and onion

Every half-term report I bemoan the state of on-board catering. It’s so utterly pathetic now and has sunk to embarrassing levels. Even the provision of First Class freebies are unpredictable and certainly so at weekends, whilst in Standard Class, you’ll be genuinely hard pushed to find a savoury snack. LNER, which traditionally has been one of the best around when it comes to inspiration and on-board service provision seems to have caught the curse. Last Friday, on a trip from Doncaster to London, all that was available was a cheese and onion sandwich. This isn’t rare either (nor a shortcoming exclusive to LNER) and is why I now stock up at King’s Cross before my trips north. Is it time for the rail industry to stop dabbling with catering, accept it’s never going to work and give up?

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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