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Passenger Focus – A Critical Friend

Continuing our series looking at people and organisations in the rail industry, RailStaff asks the question: What do they do?

Marc Johnson reports on the passenger’s champion and long term ally of the railways

A critical friend – that’s how the chief executive of Passenger Focus, Anthony Smith, sees the organisation’s relationship with the rail industry. Someone whose views you value even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

It’s a relationship which dates back to 1947 and the formation of the Central Transport Consultative Committee (CTCC) – a body which with a network of regional committees was designed to give a formal voice to the views of passengers.

Since then the organisation’s name and responsibilities have changed a number of times. Eventually the Rail Users’ Consultative Committee (RUCC) became Passenger Focus – the operating name of the Rail Passengers’ Council – in 2006.

Really annoying

‘I’m sure at certain times they find us really annoying,” says Anthony Smith. “They probably think we’re focussing on the wrong thing or being too vocal about certain things, so it’s a funny relationship.

‘I believe they probably think we’re necessary because they realise that to a degree they run monopolies and you’ve got to have a counter balance theme of consumer interests.’

Passenger Focus has an annual budget of £4.7 million, employs around 40 people and seeks to get the best deal for passengers using research-based evidence to argue

for what passengers want. The remit includes bus passengers and tram passengers.

It’s this focus on research which means the organisation’s National Passenger Survey is widely regarded as the most accurate measure of performance within the industry. The quality of service isn’t just measured by punctuality but by what passengers think of every aspect of their journey.

Independent viewpoint

The National Passenger Survey, which polls more than 65,000 rail passengers each year, doesn’t just look at overall satisfaction for each operator but asks for views on the attitude of staff, car parking and even the toilet facilities. It also considers how well operators are catering for different types of passengers.

‘We work really hard to keep lines of communication open with the industry and we work very hard on the tone of what we do so we’re not shrill, and we’re not a campaigning organisation that’s shouting the whole time,’ says Anthony.

‘Everybody in the industry and the government says what’s very useful about what we do is the research because we do it from an independent viewpoint. We’ve got no axe to grind. We’ve got a very simple business model; we go and ask passengers what they think, we write it down and then we publish it.’

How effective is Passenger Focus?

Aside from the battles over fares and ticketing, Passenger Focus has pushed the industry, the ORR and the government to focus more on how the railway manages disruption and how quickly it feeds information to the platform. Punctuality remains the key factor governing passenger satisfaction, but it’s poorly managed delays that continue to frustrate users the most.

As well as pressuring operators to improve services, Passenger Focus acts as a translator of technical and often confusing data and terminology. Train punctuality data takes many different forms. What we’d call late might be considered on time by another measure. Passenger Focus acts as an independent watchdog which positions itself as a filter between train companies and the travelling public.

The West Coast debacle

Traditionally franchise renewals give Passenger Focus an opportunity to lever the wants of rail users into formal proposals. The West Coast debacle has more than ever before brought the franchising process into question.

The ensuing row has made passengers more aware of the processes which decide who is in charge of the country’s trains. The system can appear closed off to passengers.

‘With franchising you have a very

big, very complex, very long-term decision, which frankly you’re not really going to get passengers focussed on,’ says Anthony.

“They’re far more worried about whether they’re going to get a seat today or tomorrow, or whether the train is going to be punctual next week when they have to get to work on time for something special.’

Making sure long-term passenger interests are promoted in these complicated debates is important. ‘What is clear is that the process of franchising needs much more opening up so that passengers have a much clearer idea of what is being done on their behalf.’ Smith hopes this will give passengers a much better opportunity to inform the process.

Make a difference

Passenger Focus is a mediator. Every year it deals with around 3,500 passenger complaints – usually from rail users unhappy about how a train operator has dealt with their initial complaint.

‘Our job is to make a difference for passengers. We aim to be useful.’ Passenger Focus produces research that is useful to the industry and government. The aim is to help them make rational and supportive decisions about the railways and their passengers. Importantly Passenger Focus sticks up for passengers, making sure their voice is heard in an industry which has a lot of large monopolistic structures.

In the organisation’s annual report, unpaid fares notices were highlighted as a major area of concern. Unhappily regular passengers who have forgotten their rail card are treated the same as those who are trying to defraud the railway.

Passenger Focus has been asking for more rail staff to use consistent discretion day to day. Says Anthony, ‘Imagine you have been a customer of a train company for 26 years. One day you forget your rail card and bang you’re done. There’s no notion of: Hang on I’ve been a customer of yours for 26 years; why are you treating me like this.

‘The industry has to step back and think about this from a

consumer relations point of view as well as collecting revenue which is quite right and proper.’

After 13 years of gentle persuasion as a critical friend, Anthony believes the industry has been listening to their advice, even if sometimes begrudgingly.

“It definitely has become more consumer focussed and I think the whole industry has become more passenger focussed. The government has and the ORR has as well. It’s slowly, slowly getting there.”

Smith might have annoyed guards and rail chiefs alike but most agree the industry needs friends – and a friend in need is a friend indeed.

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