The importance of staff at stations

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2012

Dan Taylor, policy and research advisor at Passenger Focus, argues that station staff should not be seen as an indulgence that can be cut to save money, but a vital resource.

The McNulty rail value for money study identified cutting staff costs (which are approaching £4bn a year) as a major priority. Amongst other things it recommended a move towards Driver Only Operation (DOO) and removing regulation on ticket office opening hours – presumably as a precursor to reducing retail staff.

Passenger Focus’s research continually emphasises the importance of staff, particularly when it comes to issues such as personal security, ticketing and the provision of information. In 2009 the work that Passenger Focus did to identify which attributes of the rail service passengers would most like to see improved, revealed that two of the top 15 attributes directly related to the presence and attitude of customer facing staff:

• station staff are available whenever required (10)

 • personal security improved by CCTV/staff at stations (14)

Over the last four waves of the National Passenger Survey, satisfaction with personal security, whilst using the station, has consistently been low amongst passengers (66%, spring 2011). Passenger satisfaction with security on the train however, is slightly higher (76% spring 2011). These figures are lower still for those travelling in London and the South East as part of their regular commute, and for those travelling after dark. Reassuringly, 98% of people said that they would feel safe travelling by train during the day; but this figure dropped dramatically to 64% when asked to think about travel after dark. The main areas of concern are the time spent waiting at the station, particularly at smaller stations where there are fewer passengers, and a reduced chance of there being any staff on duty.

Overall, when asked whether they had cause to worry about their personal security during a rail journey during the previous six months, over one in ten passengers said that they had. When asked why they had cause to worry, the same passengers made it very clear that their main concerns, both on the train and at the station, related to the anti-social behaviour of other passengers and the lack of staff. In trying to define what types of anti-social behaviour (ASB) particularly concerned passengers, Passenger Focus did a joint piece of research with the British Transport Police in 2010. It revealed that the top three types of ASB passengers consider to be very worrying were: abusive or threatening behaviour, theft of belongings and people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

 As for what could allay some of those concerns, passengers consistently identify staff presence as being important to providing reassurance to those travelling on the railway.

The industry therefore needs to consider how it can best deploy staff across the rail network to meet this need. Cutting the number of staff, either at stations or on the train, runs counter to what passengers actually want and could jeopardise their confidence in their ability to get to their destination safely.

 In the past some operators have attempted to address this issue by contracting security personnel, or guards, to complement the role of more traditional transport staff.

The aim has been to enhance the security of both staff and passengers, and has been particularly evident on local services within Greater London and other cities. Travel Safe Officers (renamed Rail Community Officers) were appointed by South West Trains with the aim of improving levels of customer service and of generating an improved sense of personal security for passengers on trains and at stations.

They were trained to enforce byelaws and also offer support/reassurance to passengers in difficult situations.

Passengers are aware of the increased numbers of staff deployed on the railway, for reassurance and enforcement, but have suggested that they are often unsure ‘who was who’ and what remit and powers each member of staff has. Some staff have also expressed dismay with what they perceive to be a lack of power to carry out the job effectively. Therefore, whilst most passengers generally feel that the level of staffing on the railway needs to be increased; sheer numbers alone will not provide the solution.

 Passengers believe that all rail staff need the appropriate training to help them deal with the difficult circumstances they have to work in and to ensure that they respond to passengers appropriately. They recognise the difficulties that staff face, but want them to be proactive in their approach to the public – making visual and verbal contact with passengers to demonstrate that they are ‘there for them’. If staff fail to do this, and cannot easily be recognised (because they need to be clearly identified by their uniform) then their role in providing reassurance will be undermined.

Passenger Focus is a strong supporter of staffing at stations. This is not only to provide tickets and information, and to protect revenue, but equally to offer a reassuring human presence that enhances passengers’ perception of security and acts as a deterrent to crime and disorder. However, to achieve this staff must be visible and approachable. Staff must be trained in the skills necessary to demonstrate through their presence, appearance and demeanour that they are fully in command of the premises.

We acknowledge that the deployment of dedicated security personnel, by operators, at critical times and in critical locations can bring real benefits. However, the need to provide reassurance and clear evidence that the railway is a managed environment arises everywhere and at all times. Providing surveillance and a sense of security to passengers should be part of the ‘day job’ for all station staff, not left to specialist teams whose members are necessarily restricted in their number.

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