How to keep rail passengers happy

By Rebecca Joyner

27 January, 2015

This week Transport Focus (formerly Passenger Focus), the official independent rail consumer watchdog, released the latest results of its survey on passenger satisfaction with rail services in Britain – the National Passenger Survey (NRPS).  It’s big news in the rail industry (an Official Statistic), with many train operators targeted on passenger satisfaction as part of their contractual franchise obligations.

Overall, Autumn 2014 saw a drop in satisfaction (81% of passengers’ journeys were satisfactory, compared to 83% the year before and a peak of 85% in 2012), and – rightly – this is the headline in much of the media reporting.

% passengers very or fairly satisfied with their journey
National Rail Passenger Survey, Autumn 2014:
NRPS blog chart

BDRC Continental runs the NRPS on behalf of Transport Focus.  We regularly analyse the relationship between passengers’ overall journey satisfaction and specific aspects of their experience, and it is no surprise to know that punctuality is the most important factor in a good journey.  The proportion of trains which arrive on time has slipped a little over the last two years (according to the Public Performance Measure), and this is undoubtedly the reason for the corresponding dip in passenger satisfaction.

Somebody very wise once told me that being late for appointments shows the other person that you believe your time is more important than theirs.  Running the railways is an enormous undertaking, and it’s really hard to run all trains on time, all of the time.  But the rail industry has to get timeliness right, for its customers to feel satisfied, let alone valued.

However, under the headline and the need to improve reliability, there are, of course, more varied stories.  Some train companies have seen significant drops in passenger satisfaction since 2013, but there are others with lots of happy customers (Chiltern Railways, Merseyrail, Heathrow Express, Grand Central and East Coast all scored over 90% for journey satisfaction).

And despite the recent dips in punctuality and therefore in passenger satisfaction, it is perhaps right to acknowledge that, over the longer term, there have been real improvements.  Punctuality, while still far from perfect, has improved markedly over the last ten years and NRPS results reflect this: Satisfaction scores which were in the low 70s shortly after the millennium are now in the low 80s, and even the gap between commuters’ journey satisfaction and that of leisure travellers has narrowed.  Passengers are happier now than they were a decade ago.  It’s important that train companies review the feedback in detail over this time to learn from it, and to help them keep going.

It is also interesting to see that, as train companies get better at being on time over the long term, other factors also become important to passengers.  In particular, the environment on board trains (such as cleanliness, atmosphere, and personal space) is becoming more and more important.  In effect, punctuality is increasingly becoming a hygiene factor (a base-level requirement, as of course it should be), and as this basic requirement becomes more confidently expected, passengers are naturally becoming more demanding about other aspects of the service.

Tilemahos Efthimiadis Flickr Keep feet off Seats Train Sign

That is not to say that higher passenger expectations are an excuse for the recent loss of momentum in satisfaction.  Ambitions for rail in Britain are high (new developments, like Crossrail, get mentioned alongside phrases like “world class railway”, and HS2 is intended to transform our economic geography), and The Office of Rail Regulation consistently reports increases in rail use (since privatisation in the mid-1990s, we’ve doubled the number of journeys we make).  So it’s right that expectations are also high, and that operators strive to meet them.

As passenger numbers grow and grow, and crucially as more investment is needed, the rail industry must continue to improve its delivery of the basics, but needs to keep upping its game in other more innovative ways as well.  Information shared with us by the operators indicates that commuters continue to make the vast majority of rail journeys, but actually leisure journeys are up by over 65%, and business rail travel is growing fastest of all – more than doubling since 2000.  There has already been a plethora of developments to improve access to, and experience of, the railways, for these different types of passengers.  2014 saw the launch of the Two Together Railcard, providing discounts for two named passengers who travel together (this is great – believe me, I have four).  Apps and ‘smart’ ticket formats are being introduced by more and more operators, making it easier to plan journeys and buy tickets.  And through social media, train companies are becoming both more pro-active in providing information, and more responsive to customers (watch this space for BDRC’s upcoming study into how effectively transport operators engage with customers on Twitter, via our Twystery® methodology).

Among those train companies which have not done so well in the recent NRPS, many are already asking us for further analysis to help them understand where things are going wrong and how they might improve.  And encouragingly, some of those with positive results are doing the same.  With several franchises due for renewal over the next few years, understanding passengers’ experiences and needs is never more important.

You can see more results from the National Rail Passenger Survey on Transport Focus' website.

Learn more about BDRC's work on the National Rail Passenger Survey and the Bus Passenger Survey.

BDRC Continental’s Transport sector team are experts in helping clients in the public transport industry to understand their customers.  To find out more, contact Rebecca Joyner: Rebecca.joyner@bdrc-continental.com, 0207 490 9148.

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