Building passenger trust in the new South West franchise

Source: RTM Apr/May 17

David Sidebottom, passenger director at Transport Focus, discusses the importance of focusing on passenger wants and needs to build trust on the new South West franchise.

When rail franchises come up for renewal, they provide an excellent opportunity to improve the service passengers receive. And, at the moment, a number of franchises are currently being renewed, including South Eastern, East Midlands and West Midlands. 

Transport Focus carries out research asking passengers what they want to see improve with their service. We use this as the basis for influencing the service specification, produced by the DfT, and the selection of franchise bidders. Later in the process, we assess the part of the bids that deal with customer service. In this way, passengers’ interests get to be at the heart of the new franchise.    

The outcome of the South West process was announced recently. An alliance between FirstGroup and MTR is taking over the new franchise from Stagecoach. We recently worked on this franchise, which covers services from Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devon and Dorset to London. 

The alliance has exciting plans for that line with some ambitious promises for rail users. Passengers should see new trains and more services coming into Waterloo – already the busiest station in the country. 

Passengers will no doubt welcome the introduction of Delay Repay compensation for the first time, which will be triggered at 15 minutes rather than 30 minutes. This will put it in line with the new compensation arrangements for Southern passengers. It is good to see that they plan to introduce smart ticketing with special travel deals for people who do not work a five-day week and discounts for students. They will also expand their smart card offering to provide the cheapest single or day return fare. Developing the technology to do this will be key. 

Communication and complaints challenge 

But there are two issues in particular which we will be looking out for. Over the next few months there will be a lot of building work and disruption to Waterloo station just as the franchise changes.  A key challenge for the First MTR alliance, along with Network Rail, will be to ensure that they communicate their ongoing plans and what they mean for passengers. Our own research shows that if this is done well, it can enhance the perceptions of the train company. 

Another issue is the way they handle passengers’ complaints. FirstGroup runs the Great Western franchise. Over the last few months, it has had problems dealing with complaints, building up a huge backlog. This resulted in many frustrated passengers not receiving any response to their complaints for months. As we intervene in complaints when passengers are not happy with the way the train company has dealt with their complaint, we also had a major surge in appeal complaints from GWR.

We worked with GWR to help it resolve some of the issues and also invited the company’s managing director, Mark Hopwood, to our board meeting held in public. Hopwood explained what he had been doing to resolve the problem and what lessons they had learnt. The difficulties emerged as First awarded the contract to run its customer contact centre to Capita. The combination of some major incidents on the network and some significant operation and staffing challenges resulted in many thousands of GWR passengers having to contact the centre. We are now seeing far fewer cases, so the signs are that the short-term problem has largely been dealt with. 

The challenge for any change in a franchise is a potential reduction in service quality. In this case, First should be alert to the potential problem and should ensure this does not happen on the South West franchise, whoever provides the complaints service. We will certainly be monitoring this situation. 

The new franchise could do a lot for building passengers’ trust in the South West line. But only if they focus on what passengers really want!

For More Information




Andrew Gwilt   08/05/2017 at 23:07

But why would First+MTR Southwestern Trains don't want the Class 707's as Siemens are currently building 30 of the 5-Car Class 707's for the Waterloo-Windsor & Eton Riverside service and Hounslow Loop service. Where will the Class 707's go! Could other train operators may want the Class 707's? I wouldn't mind if Greater Anglia could use the Class 707's on the Liverpool St-Southend Victoria, Clacton-on-Sea and Ipswich services and/or Stansted Express to use the Class 707's for the Liverpool St-Stansted Airport service but instead new Bombardier Aventra Class 720's and Stadler Flirt Class 745's and Class 755's trains are ordered and should be in service in around 2019/2020. Which could mean that East Midlands Trains could use the Class 707's on the St. Pancras International-Corby and Nottingham service if the Midland Main Line electrification (north of Bedford) does get the go ahead. Or could the Class 707's might end up north to be used in the North of England.

Tothehills   09/05/2017 at 09:24

Having lived in the south Hampshire area in the 70's and 80's, it still puzzles me why the service is so slow. The fastest train from Southampton Central, under BR, could do the journey to Waterloo in an hour and 10 minutes. Faster than any of the present proposals with slower trains!

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