INTERVIEW:

Sharon Hedges, Franchise Programme Manager, Transport Focus

“Over the years, we have seen the emergence of connectivity as a core demand” – Sharon Hedges discusses the evolution of customer demands and how transparent communication is the key to rebuilding the industry

 

Sharon has worked for Transport Focus since 2006 and leads the work on rail franchising. Working with bidders, stakeholders, communities and passengers to ensure passenger satisfaction is at the top of the agenda she has an interesting perspective on the industry as a whole.

You’ve worked with Transport Focus since 2006 – how have passenger demands evolved in that time?

Passengers’ basic expectations from their train service have remained largely constant. Value for money tickets for clean, well-maintained trains where they can get a seat, that depart and arrive on time and with timely, useful information are always important.

Over the years, though, we have seen the emergence of connectivity as a core demand; this has moved from low salience to a hygiene factor and passengers can become very frustrated when Wi-Fi drops in and out on certain networks – and it is certainly expected to be free! There is also an increasing expectation that information is provided in real-time and of swift responses to queries and problems, especially via social media. 

We still see a lot of confusion about fares and ticketing and passengers expect a more transparent and simple purchase process. Oyster has set the bar for seamless journeys on different modes and passengers are looking for similar systems across the network. Fares have risen substantially over many years and passengers want change in the annual system of fare rises and the basis on which they are calculated.

Passengers who have disabilities or other needs are, rightly, demanding the opportunity to travel as others do. There are high levels of frustration with requirements to book assistance in advance.  It’s the 21st century and we need to see a step change in effective responses to short-notice or turn-up-and -go travellers who need some help to access or make a rail journey.

“We’ve seen the emergence of connectivity as a core demand.”

From your perspective, what is the key to delivering an excellent customer experience?

Responding to the needs above is the starting point!

Front-line staff are the face of the railway and ensuring they are well-trained, motivated, make the effort to engage with passengers and have the tools to do their job is really important.

Keeping passengers informed, particularly when there is disruption, is also crucial. People want and need to know the impact on their journey and what they can do to complete it with the shortest delay possible.

When things go wrong, rights to compensation should be widely promoted and the process simple and easy. Our Make Delay Pay! campaign aims to highlight these issues, encourage people to claim what they are entitled to and get the industry to make improvements to the system. A personal bugbear of mine is that after delayed and complicated journeys, at some point later the passenger is expected to know the timetable and remember scheduled arrival and departure times of their originally intended service before they can complete the forms. It can seem that obstacles are put in the way of obtaining fair recompense.

Multiple channels of communication are needed to allow passengers to engage when they need to, via their preferred methods. The entire industry must do more to be transparent and work to build trust, which in many areas is extremely low. More explanations about how and why decisions are taken, and the trade-offs that are often involved would be helpful.

“The entire industry must do more to be transparent and work to build trust.”

A lot is changing in British rail at the moment – how can the industry prepare for the challenges that lie ahead?

We’re all eagerly anticipating the conclusions from the Williams review. It feels as though lots of decisions are on hold until the agenda for Rail Reform is set out and the first steps for implementation are taken. However, it seems likely that this process will take years rather than months to complete. In the meantime, Transport Focus wants to ensure that the improvements and benefits that passengers want to see aren’t just pushed into the middle or longer distance. There needs to be a way to achieve visible and useful progress on the many challenges we’re facing.

Good communication between all the key organisations, particularly those operating track and train, is vital and alignment of incentives is the way to help everyone pull in the same direction.

Making the industry, and the many interesting and challenging jobs within it, appealing to potential employees young or older is also an imperative. It’s a competitive world out there and rail needs all the good people it can get!

Interview conducted by Sasha Cotton, Conference Producer – Accelerate

Sharon has worked for Transport Focus since 2006 and now leads the work on rail franchising.

Franchise activity is underpinned by evidence of passenger experience and future aspirations. This draws on the breadth of Transport Focus research and frequently involves commissioning bespoke studies to explore issues specific to an individual franchise. She has also drawn on work with the Customer Community for HS2 in input to the West Coast Partnership competition.

The key objective, regardless of the structures for the delivery of rail services, is to press for a range of passenger benefits to be incorporated in contracts – and effectively delivered.

Sharon works closely with policy and procurement teams to highlight the key passenger issues for each franchise and make recommendations about how they can be addressed. She also provides advice on passenger satisfaction metrics based on the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS). Sharon and colleagues engage in detailed discussions with bidders as well as exchanging information with other stakeholders and passengers.

Further details of Transport Focus research and input to franchises, as well as submissions to the Williams review, can be found at: www.transportfocus.org.uk