Making waves in rail

13 April 2016

Freshwater’s rail sector specialists, John Morris and Ben Blackburn, give their thoughts on how rail can succeed in a brand-conscious world.

Some of the changes from rail privatisation were driven by political ideology that left little space for common-sense decisions which could have preserved the brand identity of the rail industry where it was valuable, and continued to build loyalty and understanding of consumers.

Identity and outcomes

All but one British Rail consumer brand – ScotRail – has been extinguished (others, including InterCity and Network SouthEast) were allowed to wither, and passengers’ understanding of the brand propositions were lost.

In the ‘real world’, the use of a brand for a certain activity requires a franchisee to comply with the values and attributes that go with those products and services. For instance, no subscriber to the InterCity brand could use substandard trains with noisy underfloor engines.

Privatisation promised renewed vigour to the market with private-sector practices and expertise. Yet, is this still being allowed to flourish? Train service specifications are now set down in considerable detail for franchise bidders by the Department for Transport’s Rail Group: has too much, too little, or the wrong kind of oversight caused the industry to lose a common sense of purpose?

Any effective product or service requires its customers to understand the proposition, and operators invest in communications, branding and marketing strategies to help this happen. However, there is sometimes a failure of the essential proposition – moving people from A to B in comfort and safety, on time and with value for money – to match the aims and values described by the service’s brand identity.

Understanding the customer

Other than the dividend paid back to the Treasury, taxpayer or shareholders, what does a successful railway look like? All operators publish performance metrics, but does anyone know what customers expect as an industry standard in terms of comfort, convenience and customer service?

The industry minimums are set by watchdogs in technical and opaque fashion, describing how late trains can be before they are actually considered late; how long it is acceptable for passengers to stand; how well complaints were dealt with. They are set by civil servants and appear to have little relationship to what customers themselves consider priorities – an omission many would think perverse.

Opinions, surveys and research conclusions are not hard to come by. In July 2015, a consultation on Transport Focus’ National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) and its fitness for purpose was launched. It told the industry that:

  • a broad range of emotions can be felt by the same individual on the same rail journey over a period of time
  • there is a strong relationship between getting a seat and passengers being happy or relaxed
  • commuters quickly move from being happy or relaxed to indifferent when delayed, even by less than five minutes

One would think that a survey to determine passenger behaviour might ask the passenger what was important. But, hidden away in the notes from the consultation is this surprising admission: ‘…consultees asked whether passengers had been involved in the consultation process. We confirm that passengers were not part of the consultation process…’

Other organisations have undertaken more consumer-based research, such as the recent Which? survey that purports to show the ‘…best and worst UK train companies…’

This certainly provided the media with plenty of fodder and suggested that the return on investment in a brand can’t be taken for granted. Out of all the brands in rail, Virgin is the most recognised, and yet arguably its proposition is not immediately consistent or clear, particularly to those loyal to the brand elsewhere.

Comparing apples to oranges

According to Which?, open-access operators appear to have delivered more of the privatisation promise than more visible brands, even though they’re often owned by the same groups who manage franchised operations.

Why did small and relatively obscure railway brands take the top spots? With their very limited number of services, are they focusing on a very small part of the total market and cherry picking? Certainly, lumping together open access, small regional, devolved city-region concessions, intercity commuter and long distance operators in a single table of customer satisfaction leads to inaccurate and unfair comparisons. It’s also an unfair simplification to draw direct comparisons between parts of the country where capital investment opportunities, operational challenges and ticket receipts vary hugely.

In some cases a ‘reboot’ of heritage brands works well, such as Great Western Railway for example. Others argue that as identities are built up over a period of decades and not a few short years, the taxpayer should be their custodian, passing them on through franchisees that continue to invest in them.

A new way ahead?

But perhaps innovation and regulation can work hand in hand. The DfT could globally set the minimum brand proposition for rail travel, which could guarantee the availability of a seat, or money back, for instance. Alternatively, it could do so on a franchise-by-franchise basis; one where passengers aren’t guaranteed seats on commuter services but do get heavily discounted travel.

There could be even more done to incentivise operators to innovate and improve, particularly in the realm of customer relations where a national focus on satisfaction has encouraged the industry to act. TransPennine Express (TPE) is an example of one franchise that has been leading the way in this area. TPE has been recognised by the customer services industry for new training initiatives to empower its front-line staff’s customer handling, to say sorry quickly (for instance, offering an instant refund or a seat upgrade) and to initiate a formal training and delivery programme tailored to meet customers’ hidden needs, such as dementia.

The new franchises in the north of England have been defined and refined by the DfT in partnership with Rail North, whose devolved structure may point towards a new model that helps to bridge the gap at the specification stage between what civil servants, local stakeholders and the travelling public think is important.

More honesty

The industry needs to be a lot more honest with passengers, and that’s why establishing brand attributes is so important. There is a pressing and genuine need for proper engagement and communications in this area, on an unapologetic warts-and-all basis.

Such an approach can and is encouraging more genuine passenger participation, resulting in innovative franchises that work with rather than for local communities, rail user groups, passengers and key stakeholders.

Change is happening. The use of a brand, mandated by the franchising authority, is now built into the non-DfT franchises: London Overground, ScotRail and Merseyrail.

The wheels are already in motion for a rail network that puts the needs of its customers genuinely at its heart. But there is much more to do, and it requires a nimbler, more innovative and bottom-up style of thinking when needs are identified and services defined.

How an operator then invests in its brand should be driven by a holistic strategy where the risks of failure are understood and mitigated; where efforts are concentrated on building upon the successes and attenuating the weaknesses of past regimes; where the requirements of the passenger are genuinely understood and evaluated; and where the customer fully understands the brand proposition.

This article was originally published in Rail Professional magazine, April 2016.