Domestic rail travel hasn’t had great press in the last few years, but when it works well taking the train is a great option, with cheap advance tickets available to canny passengers and hopefully a relaxing journey. There are complex reasons behind the issues with UK trains but looking through the many newspaper articles and passenger forums what passengers actually want from their journeys is quite basic. Here are seven key expectations of the customer experience for train travel.
If you don’t have a reserved seat for your long-distance train at 7pm on a Friday night, you’d better put your trainers on for the mad sprint across the station to the ticket barriers, or risk spending your journey stood in the corridor. And spare a thought for passengers on some of the most crowded commuter routes. According to 2018 reports, many morning trains into London had 1,000 passengers and less than 700 seats, with some running at double their capacity. The TransPennine Express to Manchester Airport took first place for overcrowding at 211% on one service. Some train operators, including GWR and Southern, have since taken steps to increase the amount of carriages and seats. Forthcoming ticketing changes may also ease overcrowding on some services, with plans to even up fares so people no longer have to wait for the first off-peak service in the evening.
Better value for money
Are the UK’s trains the most expensive in Europe as is sometimes claimed? It’s hard to compare prices because of the millions of different fares available. In the UK the difference between buying a ticket in advance and buying one on the day can be vast, not to mention comparing super-off-peak fares with truly eye-watering morning peak fares (London-Manchester £180 anyone?). But whatever the truth is, there’s no doubt that many passengers think they’re not getting value for money, particularly if they’re using lines that have been blighted by strikes and timetable chaos in the last couple of years. If we want to cut the UK’s carbon emissions and get people opting for the train rather than driving – or flying if it’s long-distance – there’s work to be done, whether it’s cutting fares or changing current perceptions of the customer experience.
Trains that run on time
Up to 60% of trains were delayed on some of the worst-performing networks, with Hull Trains being the worst offender. There are myriad reasons for delays – llamas on the line in one case – but some of the common causes include infrastructure problems like signal failures or broken tracks, train faults and staff issues. The UK introduced fairly tough new standards in 2019, meaning any train that arrives more than a minute after the scheduled time is categorised as late and times are recorded at every station. This in itself is part of a drive towards better punctuality, the idea being that easily accessible, transparent information will drive accountability and allows for better analysis of why delays happen so measures can be introduced to reduce them.
In the UK there are a staggering 55 million different possible train fares. Just 34% of passengers were ‘very confident’ that they’d bought the best-value ticket for their last journey. The current fares system dates back to 1995 and much has changed since then, both in the way railways operate and in terms of how people live and work. The result is strange anomalies, resulting in some customers ‘split ticketing’ because it’s cheaper, and weird decrees from train companies telling passengers that they are not allowed to disembark at an earlier stop than the one on their ticket, because to get out there should cost them more. In 2019 the Rail Delivery Group proposed changes to tickets and fares to reduce complexity and make fares more logical. Pilot schemes to simplify ticket fares are now running on Govia Thameslink Railway and LNER.
An end to frequent cancellations
Cancellations disrupt people’s work and leisure plans and often lead to unpleasantly overcrowded trains. Like delays the reasons can be everything from train faults to infrastructure issues; more investment into both would bring the numbers of cancellations down. Another issue often cited is a shortage of drivers – in fact twice as many trains were cancelled because of a lack of train crew in 2019 than because of bad weather or signal problems. In ASLEF’s opinion, train operators just don’t have enough drivers, but there are other more specific issues, like route disruptions from engineering works meaning that not enough drivers with particular knowledge of that route are available. Not to mention train crew being late for work because of road traffic or having train issues themselves.
A low-stress experience
Many of the other points here feed into this, from having a seat to reliable services where cancellations and delays are the exception rather than the rule. The station experience is also crucial; people want a good range of food and drink options, decent shops, clean, accessible toilets, helpful staff and good signage. Ticket facilities – are their queues? Are the machines working? – are important, as is the availability of information on trains, platforms and timings. Then there’s transport options to and from the station, the availability of taxis, how congested or otherwise traffic is in the local area. People also want fast, easy compensation if there are issues with trains; most operators offer Delay Repay though some are better than others in terms of processing claims and actually paying up.
A lower carbon footprint
Ask most passengers and right now they’re going to put cost above sustainability in terms of their train travel priorities. But a growing number of people are concerned about climate change and would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. According to a survey by UBS, one in five of the people surveyed across the US, Germany, France and the UK had cut the number of flights they took over the last year because of the potential impact on the climate. With ‘flight shame’ on the increase, many people are turning to trains, particularly for holidays, seeing the journey itself – perhaps across Europe or parts of it – into part of the experience, rather than just a means to an end. As the climate crisis deepens, choosing greener rolling stock options and transforming stations to make them more sustainable will – hopefully – become more and more important.