1-P1000546I’m sure that being stuck for over an hour on a cold train platform on a dark and stormy night in February was a major contributor to the already dark thoughts I had about South West Trains and the rest of the ghastly UK train operating companies (TOCs). My train had a communications problem, rather like the TOCs themselves. But rather than put on an additional train, or bring in some buses, which should have been quick and easy as Basingstoke is on the A-List when it comes to rail replacement buses, a reasonably large crowd had to wait over an hour for the next, and actually last, quite crowded train of the evening, to get to points west.

So I guess it was serendipitous that after that experience a number of news items intersected and perhaps were brought together by my cynical mind, to form the genesis of this blog. These stories included the on-going and heart wrenching saga of the UK floods, the release of a Which? survey on rail services and, like manna from heaven, a great blog from my fellow customer experience fan and blogger, Ian Golding. Ian wrote about his experiences in reclaiming a lost suitcase from a recent train journey and this is a story so good, you couldn’t make it up. Check out his blog about The lost suitcase and the grumpy old man, which I’ll come back to shortly.

I live in Somerset and unfortunately I’m therefore very dependent on public transport when I don’t feel like tackling the A303 to get to London and points beyond. This is a region “served” by two of the very worst train companies, South West Trains and First Great Western, who tied for 15th place in the Which? survey with a 45% satisfaction rating. This survey looked at a range of key performance and satisfaction indicators and the overriding statistic among a number of truly shameful figures, was that 80% of passengers think fares are too high. In other words train companies are continuing to gouge their passengers and, according to Which?, value for money was a key reason for low satisfaction.

Now I recognize that Network Rail and all train companies have had the additional challenge of the terrible weather, which I accept as having a huge impact on the already chaotic service levels. And of course it’s equally challenging and dispiriting for those on the front line to deal with the persistent bombardment from tired and angry passengers, especially when they receive so little support from their senior managers.  What frustrates me, and I think many others, is not so much what happens, although the “wrong sort of leaves and rain” do leave me a little bemused. No, it’s how they mishandle these issues.  Problems associated with dirty and overcrowded carriages, toilets that don’t work, poorly maintained trains, over running track repairs, signal failures, staff shortages and frequently cancelled trains are compounded by poor or non-existent passenger communication and the TOCs’ reluctance to accept responsibility or to provide believable reasons for their failure. This only serves to amplify the issues for the long suffering passengers, especially as the companies and their senior executives seem to be the only winners in this one-sided, feudal relationship.

Where do the three elements that I mentioned earlier come together? Although much of the West Country has been adversely affected by the weather that has also disrupted transport links, I have been spared the awful experiences faced by those not too far away on the Somerset Levels. However, a number of friends and acquaintances who felt the full force of the storm, commented on how much they were dependent on, and appreciated, the kindness of strangers to literally and figuratively bail them out. While I have no solid statistical evidence and only anecdotal back-up, it appears that many of these selfless heroes were people whose normal job was with South West Train and First Great Western.

So how is that people who work for companies that institutionally and routinely manage to upset a significant portion of the great British public, can come through and help their fellow human beings when it’s most needed? Well I think the theme of Ian Golding’s article about the three levels of employee engagement hits the rail on the head. Ian says that getting his suitcase back should have been a pleasant, or at least a positive, experience, but it was neither and was tainted by one employee who, when measured by the levels of employee engagement, was at the bottom of the scale which is  “Actively Disengaged”. This is defined as an employee who isn’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day these employees undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish. How many of those have you seen on train platforms lately?

Ian sums up his experience, which incidentally was also with South West Trains, by saying: “I do not blame the man who reunited me with my suitcase for the way he behaved. I do blame the company he works for though. (The italics are mine) What have they done (or not) to make him feel this way? Why do not they not know how unhappy he is? When was the last time a ‘manager’ observed his behaviour?”

I think what happens here is that most TOC employees, and certainly the ones in the West Country, are fundamentally decent, caring and sharing people.  And when given an opportunity to shine as human beings they’re as bright as a button. I’m sure that many want to do the same thing in their day job, and are not actively disengaged by choice, but by circumstance. The train companies in this country are by any measure, (as indicated by the Which? survey), a collective national disgrace.  However they seem to be in a permanent state of denial. Even after the release of the Which? survey, the industry body, the Rail Delivery Group, responded by saying that most passengers were happy with the standard of service. Referring to another survey in January by watchdog Passenger Focus, it said “four out of five passengers were satisfied with their overall journey”. “We are always keen to get feedback from customers, whether good or bad, which has helped the industry attract record numbers of passengers and cut complaints by three quarters in a decade,” a spokesman said. I guess when the bar is set so incredibly low, it’s not difficult to make statistics work in your favour and make people believe that things are improving.

As I have reluctantly traveled frequently on most of the national and commuter routes during the last 15 years my view and experiences aren’t based on the occasional bad journey. Since privatization, the TOCs main focus has been on maximizing profit by reducing staff, slashing costs, inventing obscene, unjustified fare increases, mandating ruthless, inflexible application of their incomprehensible fare rules and failing to invest sufficiently in rolling stock. Passengers and staff are rarely, if ever, considered or consulted, as the Which? survey clearly and comprehensively demonstrates. So it’s no wonder that as part of this “strategy” their employees have also been uncoupled, disengaged and demotivated. I’ve had the chance to have conversations with some of them over the years and they’ve shared with me the frustrations of having to explain, the TOC’s well-earned reputation for greed, unrelenting arrogance, dumb rules and general disdain for passengers. They really want to do better but are neither encouraged nor supported, as Ian found out, by their management team. As Ian says, “customer centric companies typically have management teams who collectively believe in the importance of doing things with customers interests firmly in mind. One thing you can guarantee is that customer centric organisations do not just put customers first – they also put their employees first as well.”

The TOC’s fail miserably in all aspects of customer centricity and have performed continuous acts of larceny on passengers through their various ticketing wheezes, fare increases, poor value service, and funding shareholder dividend payments from public subsidies. But the real crime, and to their everlasting shame, is that they’ve also robbed their employees of their dignity, their integrity and any motivation to engage with passengers in a meaningful, helpful and human fashion.

 Unfortunately there is no easy answer as the whole rail industry is a political and confusing morass of strange rules, subsidies, lobbyists, special interest groups and infrastructure issues and the whole HS2 debate just serves to show what a mess it is in. While I’m a free market kind of a guy, and don’t usually go for unbridled government intervention, in this case they are the guys with the white hats that need to ride to our rescue. But I’m not hopeful as it looks like HS2 will take most of their energy, our money and the focus and ire of the ink stained wretches, for the foreseeable future.

However as Richard Lloyd from Which? says, “with seven rail franchises ending in the next two years, we want to see passengers’ experiences put right at the heart of the tender process so companies respond to consumer expectations and can be held to account if they don’t.” If this happens not only will the passengers start to get a better deal, but employees will as well.  

One of the key foundations of any business must be respect – For employees as well as customers.  Employees play a huge role in creating the customer experience and while the TOCs have a lot of work to do in basic service delivery, and cultural reinvention, truly engaged, empowered and passionate employees are vital and positive ingredients in helping to bridge the gap as the TOCs work their way down the track towards redemption.  But it must start at the top and TOCs must understand that creating a rewarding employee experience, encouraging and involving actively engaged employees and restoring their dignity aren’t negotiable – They’re fundamental principles to building any great business. Perhaps that’s where the greatest challenge lies.