It can be stated with the utmost confidence that recent times have been turbulent at best for the Govia Thameslink Railway, with the embattled train operator facing a cacophony of complaints, remonstrations and protestations from passengers and commuters alike in recent months. Many of these are outside of the control of the company such as issues with network infrastructure which can be attributed to the DfT and, by extension, whatever name Network Rail goes by this week. However, one specific issue has come to light involving a senior manager, very questionable customer service and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a severely overcrowded non-peak train.
The service in question was a Southern Railway service from Epsom, Surrey to London Victoria, arriving at 11:45am. According to the Daily Mail, standard class fare-paying passenger Emma Fitzpatrick was turned away from a largely empty first class seating area by Govia Thameslink’s operations manager Mark Boon, who himself was pictured sprawled across two first-class seats; himself in one and his bag, coat and bottled water adorning the other. Glossing over the fact that the general public are berated by railway staff for doing just that, Mr Boon then proceeded to turn fare-paying passengers away without even enquiring whether they had a ticket that would allow them to travel in said area. Incidentally, the commuter in question did not, though this was not established until after the event. For all Mr Boon knew, she was perfectly entitled to sit in the aforementioned compartment.
Of course, it must be said that Mr Boon himself, as a senior manager, does have the right to first-class travel across the Thameslink network, comprising of the core Thameslink route through central London, the Southern Railway network (including Gatwick Express) and the Great Northern route, running from London through to East Anglian towns and cities such as Cambridge and King’s Lynn. As a senior manager, Mr Boon will receive various perks, such as complimentary or heavily-discounted first class travel. Indeed, according to employee reviews on Glassdoor, complimentary travel across the Thameslink network is a perk enjoyed by all employees.
Snapshot of PPM & Right Time metrics on GTR for 12th July 2018
With that being said, that is of scant comfort to the travelling public, who have seen services delayed or even cancelled at short notice. Thameslink, by their own admission, claim to be working towards an overall Passenger Experience Metric (PEM) of 83% in 2018 though despite this, the company’s own snapshot for Thursday, 12th July shows that only 72.4% of trains across the network made their targeted PPM score, and only 46.9% reached their destination at their scheduled time – a trend which has continued, and indeed worsened, for a considerable period.
As touched on earlier, however, not all of these delays are entirely the fault of Thameslink. A new timetable, rolled out on the 20th of May has been met with countless issues relating to on-time performance, and the staged introduction of new, sleek Class 700 trains alongside older rolling stock have both contributed to the current situation on Thameslink. With this in mind, the company should surely be doing more to enhance its customer service rating in response to this.
All too often the response from customers has been that of a company showing a lack of empathy. Common complaints include a lack of relevant information regarding calling patterns, cascading of information to third parties such as Passenger Information Screens and Citymapper and the lack of clarity between customers and service teams, such as those on Twitter. Reviews left on Trustpilot give one of the sub-brands, Southern Railway, a trust score of just 0.7/10 from 268 reviews, with complaints tallying with the above being sounded from across the board. Some passengers have even reported that they have been unable to leave trains at their destination due to the dangerous levels of overcrowding on some peak services; indeed, six out of the top ten most crowded trains in the UK currently operate under the Thameslink brand.
So what can be done to improve customer service and help to win back some of those left feeling disenfranchised by the franchise? One answer could be found within the aviation industry, much like Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains East and West Coast operators attempted upon taking over their respective franchises. Airlines such as JetBlue in the USA formed positive customer sentiment by priding themselves on the service they provided both in the air and on the ground. Indeed, the company took pride in both meeting and exceeding customer expectations, both actively seeking out and engaging both with positive and negative comments on Twitter. Another famous old wives’ tale involves management taking up the final, non-reclining row on their jets to ensure priority goes to fare-paying customers in front of them. Such customer service is rare to find on the railway in the UK, but has contributed to JetBlue fast gaining a reputation for being an airline that prioritises the customer experience. This has led the airline to achieve a customer satisfaction rate of 79%, though it should be noted that this is down from 83% the previous year.
Naturally, however, this can be considered as comparing apples and oranges, as airlines and train operators cater for vastly differing sectors, though parallels can be drawn through the Virgin-operated brands above. One such example of this is a recent trip this author made from York to King’s Cross. Upon arriving at York, it became apparent that an issue with the Overhead Line Equipment meant our Grand Central train was not going to run. Despite holding advance tickets for Grand Central trains only, the LNER (formerly Virgin Trains East Coast) staff allowed passengers to board and, consequently, gained preferential business from this author for years to come whilst saving the railways from the ignominy of laying on 30 taxis from York to London on a Sunday evening.
Clearly, there is a way to turn a negative into a positive as with the example above. Sadly, with the way the Thameslink service is currently being run, there are plenty of opportunities for staff such as Mr Boon to strike up a positive rapport with those on his service and outline to passengers what he himself is doing to help recover the service levels on the failing network. Unfortunately, given this example of dreadful service, it seems significant further training is needed to unlock the ability to do thus.