“One of the big challenges from an insight point of view is that the rail sector often doesn’t know who its customers are, and if it does, knows very little about them. This may well change as ticketing become more digital.”
The business of managing a nationwide rail network is a challenging task. That’s especially true in the UK, where there are more than 20 individual train operating companies (TOCs) transporting more than 1.7 billion people annually. It’s therefore vital that there are structures in place and organisations established that look out for those huge numbers of passengers, fighting their corner and ensuring they’re being heard. That’s very much what Transport Focus does, the independent watchdog which looks out for passengers through a number of different means.
Ian Wright, the head of insight at Transport Focus, joins SmartRail World for the latest 5 Minutes With… to explain that there is more to the independent watchdog than just producing the hugely important and extensive passenger surveys. Speaking to Dave Songer, Ian also gives details on the partnership it has formed with the UK’s biggest airport, the areas that he predicts will change the most in the rail industry of the future, and why – if it’s stunning train journeys you’re after – Scotland takes some beating.
Dave Songer (DS): Thanks for joining us, Ian. For those of our readers unfamiliar with Transport Focus, can you give me a description about what the organisation does?
Ian Wright (IW): Absolutely, we are the independent transport user watchdog and our mission is to get the best deal for passengers and road users. With a strong emphasis on evidence-based campaigning and research, we ensure that we know what is happening on the ground. We use our knowledge to influence decisions on behalf of passengers and road users to secure improvements and make a difference.
DS: What do you like most about working in rail, an industry you’ve been involved in for nearly nine years?
IW: Rail is an industry that can really impact people’s lives. Not everyone uses trains, but for many who do, it’s an integral part of their lives. It’s really satisfying being in a role where you can help improve things for passengers – and it’s not very difficult to get people to talk about their experiences!
DS: I can imagine. Head of insight sounds like a very varied role – what are you main areas of responsibility?
IW: I’m ultimately responsible for all the research and insight we produce, which given that Transport Focus is an evidence-based organisation amounts to a lot of insight. Each year we aim to spend a third of our budget on insight and if anyone were to look at our website, where we publish all of our work, you’ll see what I mean.
My role is actually evolving to look at new ways of capturing insights, to ensure what we do stays at the leading edge. To this end, we’ve partnered with Heathrow Airport to run an event in September that will look at how to better engage and measure overall customer experience – I’m looking at how we can establish more partnerships like that. We have traditionally partnered up on research projects, but we think there is opportunity for more collaboration that will benefit passengers. I have recently joined the Market Research Society Standards Board and I am looking forward to driving up standards in the research industry as a result.
DS: Sounds very positive. Are you involved in the @TransportFocus passenger satisfaction surveys and if so, can you tell me the process to put them together?
IW: We run the National Rail Passenger Survey, which we believe is the largest published rail satisfaction survey in the world. It’s used as part of franchise monitoring in Great Britain, and to help set the bonuses for some senior staff in the industry, so it really gives passengers a powerful voice. The survey has involved interviews with around 60,000 passengers a year since 1999 – so it was designed before my time – and we have recently made some substantial changes to modernise the survey, which involved consulting with both stakeholders and technical advisers. We also conducted a substantial pilot of the new methodology to see how the data compared with the existing methodology. And of course we asked passengers what they thought of the survey, too.
DS: Would you say that rail presents any unique challenges in your insight-focused role?
IW: One of the big challenges from an insight point of view (and for the industry more generally) is that the rail sector often doesn’t know who its customers are, and if it does, knows very little about them. Compare that to say the retail sector, or online businesses, and it is much more difficult to interview the right people at the right time. This may well change as ticketing become more digital, but there is a danger that all of this data sits behind a firewall, and is not available in a form that allows it to be used by all to improve train services.
DS: What’s been your biggest career challenge?
IW: The ongoing timetable crisis on parts of the British rail network has certainly drawn on many parts of our organisation in what seems like an unprecedented way, so that’s certainly been a challenge. But it’s important that the issues are fixed because they can have a major impact on peoples’ lives, so it’s well worth the effort.
DS: What have been the biggest changes in the rail industry since you began and where will the next come?
IW: Well until very recently, passenger numbers had continued to grow, after having doubled since privatisation. This of course puts a strain on the network in terms of capacity and congestion, and can impact negatively on the customer experience, producing delays and overcrowding. However, there has been a lot of welcome investment in infrastructure and rolling stock since 2009, although because of the change in the balance between the fare box and taxation, passengers have been paying increasingly higher fares. As a result perceptions of value for money, especially amongst commuters, are low, and rail passengers tell us that improving value for money is their number one priority.
In the future I think that will focus around fares and ticketing, as area which pretty much anyone involved in the rail industry (including its customers!) agrees needs to change. As I said, we know from our research that value for money is passengers’ number one priority for improvement and we have a wealth of research on the subject. That’s why we’re involved in the industry initiative to reform fares, which is currently out for public consultation.
DS: You’re moderating at this year’s SmartMetro and have attended previous shows. What do you most enjoy about them?
IW: I have spoken at the show for the last few years. The main thing I like about it is the networking: it’s got a real international feel as there is always a good mix of people from around the world that prevents it from being just being the same usual faces.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey and why?
IW: I’ve been lucky enough to make a number of spectacular train journeys around the world, including the legendary Orient Express. However, one of my favourite journeys has been on the Caledonian Sleeper through the Highlands of Scotland. It will be even better when the new trains come into service, and I’d like to think our ongoing Guest Satisfaction Survey with users of the service will help contribute to a great experience.
DS: Thanks very much, Ian.
To learn more about the SmartMetro show that Transport Focus will be attending, visit the website. Taking place in Paris in Paris between 29th-31st October, the event provides the opportunity to hear from and meet meet senior metro, tram, and light rail technology experts… all under one roof.
If you enjoyed reading this interview with Ian, why not check out the last edition with Michael Helta from Maryland Transit Administration.
Would you like to get involved in this feature? This informal feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.