Anthony Smith (right), with Bob Barnes-Watt.
© John Yellowlees, 2013
Passenger Focus's method of working is simple; they just talk to passengers and publish what they say. Passenger Focus are not pro-rail as such but a consumer organisation representing rail passengers throughout Britain and bus and tram passengers in England outside London, aiming to provide research as a better substitute for anecdotes.
Comparative benchmarking is effective because no-one likes to be bottom of the league. Passenger Focus are independent, at arm's length from the DfT whom they meet once a year to discuss their budget and work-plan, and aim to earn their keep by engaging in constructive dialogue, not shouting but maintaining a responsible tone.
Passenger Focus's predecessor was born with nationalisation in 1949, and they assumed their present title in 2005, taking on English buses at the end of the Labour Government in 2010 but facing the loss of one third of their staff and 45% of their budget, cut to £5M in the reviews of quangos under the current administration.
Now their main products are the National Passenger Survey, which talks to 60,000 passengers in two waves annually about their most recent journey, and the Bus Passenger Survey. Many train operators also do their own tracking surveys so they and others can buy "boosters" of enhanced coverage from Passenger Focus, who also survey the directly-managed stations for Network Rail.
Punctuality is key, but passengers are also concerned about the handling of disruption, so the more a train operator can keep to time the less it irritates its customers, who are effectively buying the timetable from it. Passenger Focus are now seeing the best service overall in ten years, while trying to get a grasp on variations where they exist, and can attribute much improvement directly to investment : for example the rebuilt Kings Cross has boosted satisfaction by 32%.
The availability and cost of station car-parking are important as is the annual PR nightmare of fares increases, and while a statement on the Government's fares and ticketing consultation is due in the spring it is difficult to simplify the fare structure. An instruction on paper tickets to "see restrictions" is antediluvian, but smart ticketing means different things to different people and not everyone has confidence that customers will be prepared to risk theft or damage of their mobile phone by relying on it to carry an authorisation to travel.
The availability of clean toilets on stations and trains is important to passengers, as is passenger information during disruption, where the aim must be to remove confusing language such as "engineering work between Cheddingon and Milton Keynes" when what was meant was closure of the West Coast Main Line, "London termini" or "not HS1".
There had been concern about the publication of on-time data, but when the day came the world did not collapse: however an on-time arrival at the destination can still conceal lateness en route. On franchising Passenger Focus have a good model that supplies information on passenger expectations. Passenger Focus handle 3000 complaints annually that have been referred because these were unresolved with the train operator: East Coast has been the most complained-about for a long time despite customer satisfaction being level pegging with Virgin at 92%, so Passenger Focus are advising them on how to improve their complaint-handling procedure.
Passenger Focus's main impacts have been in the areas of benchmarking driving change, fares and ticketing, passenger information during disruption, open punctuality data and referred complaints. Current areas of activity include surveying tram passengers on which they are talking to Lothian Buses, crowding where features of train design such as 3:2 seating can affect perceptions, and devolution which can complicate Passenger Focus's reach.
Rail faces an incredibly positive future as its attributes align so well with such factors as the growth in single-person households, city-regions and the digital media, but the future for buses is more problematic with patronage continuing to decline. However because uncertainties lie ahead for us all, the transport industry should always strive to keep things flexible and simple, in the knowledge that a growing proportion of passengers will be disabled, elderly or not have English as their first language.
Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.
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