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Wednesday 17 March 2021

INSIGHTS: Placing customers at the heart of our rail recovery

“If you’re not serving the customer, you’d better be serving someone who is” so the saying goes. And it couldn’t be truer at this moment.

Our railways stand at a watershed, as our country seeks to define its post-Coronavirus, post-Brexit future. The Government is replacing the system of passenger rail franchising that has been with us for a quarter of a century. And then there’s the climate emergency.

There’s much debate about if and when rail demand will return to pre-pandemic levels. What will be the future shape of commuting, business and leisure travel? I’ve heard some gloom and doom predictions but the reality is no-one knows. I personally think we’re at risk of talking ourselves into decline, when we can write our own future.

Uncertainty is unsettling, however it gives us a once in a lifetime chance to stand back and re-evaluate. Like upgrading a creaking dial-up internet connection to superfast 5G, we have the opportunity to turbocharge our railway network to effectively serve the future needs of our society and our economy.

As a railwayman of 20-years’ experience, I’ve seen my fair share of change. But I’ve never known a challenge and an opportunity as momentous as today. It won’t be easy but with grit, vision and determination, I believe our railways will have an exciting future at the centre of the UK’s recovery. However, it will only happen if we put the customer at the heart of everything we do.

Customers demand three basic things – simplicity, reliability and value for money.

Simplicity means travel should be easy. For example, I should be able to pay for my travel without having to negotiate a plethora of ticket types, fares and restrictions. Midlands Connect’s proposals for a region-wide ‘tap and cap’ smart payment system will make things easier, by allowing frictionless travel across all modes including train, tram and bus; and value for money, imposing a daily fare cap and catering to those who work more flexibly.

Reliability means my train turns up on time and that there’s space for me to comfortably sit or stand. Our Midlands Engine Rail programme will fix the bottlenecks that cause trains to become delayed and create capacity for more than 700 extra passenger trains each day, improving services for more than 60 locations across the region.

Value for money means I get what I pay for. This means the right price-point but it also means getting the basics right. This includes train cleanliness and security. In the post-Coronavirus world, customers will be less tolerant of dirty trains and stations. These can’t be afterthoughts, bolted-on after the train service has been specified, but need to be core to our thinking. If we have a timetable that offers superfast journey times but no time at stations for cleaners to service the toilets then we’ve failed before we’ve started.

One further factor will make a decisive difference in winning customers back to rail and persuading others to leave the car at home or in the station car park – the ‘feel good’ factor.

Virgin Trains’ marketing team had the right idea a few years ago with their ‘Arrive Awesome’ campaign. We can make our customers feel like champions because they’re smart enough to choose the safest, simplest, quickest, most reliable, least stressful, most productive, best value way to travel. Not only that but they’re climate champions too for choosing the greenest way to travel.

However, for customers to feel like champions, we all need to put customers central to our thinking. And I mean all of us. Customer service is not the sole preserve of the fantastic men and women who work on our trains and stations. It’s the business of each and every person in the industry, whether you’re a politician, civil servant, local authority officer, consultant, civil engineer, HR manager, IT specialist. Whatever you do, if you’re in the railway business, you’re in the customer service business.

Written by Steve Fisher, Senior Rail Programme Manager at Midlands Connect

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