Poor customer service on the railways? Wrong: they're actually very good

I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who works on or around the railways has a similar story to this: at a party the other week, conversation turned - as it always does with people you don't know - to jobs, and I made the mistake of telling someone I'm a railway journalist.

You'd think I'd know better after all this time because sure as night followed day came the complaints. The fares are ridiculous (really? Try driving from West Cornwall to Plymouth and back for a tenner: it's £1.50 to cross the Tamar Bridge alone for heaven's sake - and never mind parking...); the journey took a long time (blame the Victorian railways for providing us with such an indirect route)... and then the killer point that always winds me up: the customer service was terrible.

This is the point where I can't help myself. "Were the staff polite, courteous and professional? Was your ticket checked? Were there announcements about the next stop and onward connections? Was the train kept litter-free? Did it arrive on time? Could you find your way out of Plymouth station without needing a map (unlike Birmingham New Street, I must say)?" I asked him.

The guest mumbled a "yes" to all of them. "How can you possibly say that was poor customer service, then?" I asked. Funnily enough, they went quiet at that point and wandered off in search of someone else. 

This sort of attitude really does get my goat. I've been on delayed trains and travelled during disruption, and only once can I think of a time when I've experienced poor customer service in the last few years. That was when standing on a windswept and rainy St Erth station waiting for the 'Night Riviera' to London. Departure time came and went, the information screens were useless and National Rail Enquiries frankly a waste of breath. Eventually it arrived and I was in London on time the next morning - but I wasn't impressed with having to spend more than an hour getting soaked and frozen.

Other than that though, over the last decade, my experience of rail travel in the UK has been remarkably good: trains have generally been punctual; staff courteous, professional and knowledgable; and I've got where I've needed to be. Customer service, far from being appalling as that party guest averred, has been remarkably good across a wide range of operators and service types for a very long time.

So let's kill this myth about the railways delivering poor customer service, shall we? I'm not saying it doesn't happen (and I'm prepared for a flood of examples) - but in my experience, whether travelling in the Far West, the big cities or anywhere in between, good customer service is the norm, not the exception. I think it's time that was recognised and appreciated much more than it is. 

Train interiors need a massive upgrade

Between Christmas and New Year family Roden took the bus to St Ives to watch the excellent Kidz R Us production of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it highlighted in stark form the difference in quality between local buses and local trains.

The new double-deck buses are comfortable, with plenty of legroom, free internet access and USB charging points for phones. They are a very pleasant environment to travel in, and - bluntly - knock all of the trains running in Cornwall at present into a cocked hat. For decades rail could boast that it offered a more comfortable and better served experience than bus services, but these days... I'm not so sure it can.

Train interiors are getting a lot of stick at the moment - witness the criticism of the Class 700 and 800 fleets - but if anything, it's the older fleets that deserve far more of a kicking. Take the CrossCountry Voyagers. I remember the excitement of their introduction early in the last decade, but 15 years or so on they feel distinctly sub-par. They look and feel tired, with (in the case of one unit I travelled on recently) paint scuffed away to bare metal in the vestibule - and this on a long-distance inter-city unit! The seats were worn and the general impression was of complete indifference of the operator to the state of its trains.

The same is true of the Class 150/153 fleet operated in Devon and Cornwall. Even allowing for the fact that many of these trains are due to be cascaded elsewhere, they are clearly very long overdue a major interior refurbishment. Like the Voyagers, in my experience, these trains are tatty and careworn - and in terms of their interiors, bluntly, not a patch on the competing buses. 

I suspect most passengers couldn't care less whether their train has a snazzy front end, or what colours the train is painted in. What they do care about is whether the train has comfortable seats and that it looks like the operator takes pride in standards of upkeep. On these measures, too often the railway is falling short - yet a comprehensive refurb can transform the passenger experience for the better.

So, a plea to operators introducing new trains and refurbishing old ones: please, please at least make a show of considering passengers' needs. Give us comfortable seats that we can bear for an hour or more, give us an interior that is a pleasant place to be - and for goodness' sake, make the trains appear as if you care about them. I can't think why anyone would choose to travel in a clapped-out Sprinter or Voyager over the more comfortable buses being introduced if journey times and fares are roughly comparable. Rail needs to up its game urgently, because passengers will vote with their bums as well as their feet. I suspect that in parts of Cornwall, they already are.

Fares fair? Not really - the system is broken.

It's a New Year, which means one of two things: firstly, it's time to start the blog that I've been mulling over for a while, and secondly, it's fare rise time for passengers. The second is more important than the first.

I have a lot of sympathy for passengers faced with fares increases that are often outstripping pay rises - and while it's true that in parts of the country passengers are seeing improvements, this hasn't been communicated nearly well enough. It is not good enough to say that some of the fares are going towards improvements that passengers may not witness for a couple of years - there needs to be a clear and cogent explanation of why fares are going up. 

Fares don't have to rise, after all - the railway as a whole could have taken the wind out of Labour's sails by announcing a one-year fares freeze (which might have effectively nullified the one-off fares cut that nationalisation could possibly offer) and generated a whole load of goodwill into the bargain. "We're listening, we feel your pain too," would have been the message. Or alternatively, the Rail Delivery Group might have argued that in addition to the improvements being paid for, the business plans of many franchises are predicated on raising regulated fares by the maximum amount possible. It would have been harder to stomach, but at least it would provide an explanation that passengers could agree or disagree with. 

Britain's railway operators took neither of these approaches and laid themselves wide-open to accusations of greed. They should have pointed out that under British Rail, fares could be raised by double-digit percentages whenever the nationalised operator wanted to, either to raise revenues or to stifle demand. That opportunity is very much more limited on the privatised railway. Again, there was a huge communications failure here.

I worry - as does Industry Insider in the latest edition of RAIL (sorry, no link to the piece yet) that the decline in season ticket journeys might just be a 'canary in the coal mine'. Fewer people travelling into London on season tickets just as expanded capacity starts to come on stream... as Industry Insider says, at least passengers may stand more chance of getting a seat even if the companies that operate the trains suffer. Whether it's fare rises or the start of an economic downturn causing this, it should be of great worry to rail operators, Network Rail and government alike.

If we're both right on that, and to bring this piece back to the point of the headline, there must be urgent reform of a fares structure that often confuses, sometimes leads to passengers paying more than they need to, and puts people off travelling by rail. I've been caught out at times, and I try to keep abreast of how to get the best deals - how many others get caught out and vow never to travel by rail again? If passengers lose confidence in the railway's ability to treat them fairly - and frankly this should be of growing concern - it won't just be season ticket journeys that fall. The rail fares system is broken, and it needs to be fixed at express speed.

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